TOKYO -- Japan announced Thursday its first death from a new virus from China, hours after confirming 44 more cases on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo as fears of the spreading disease mount in the country.
Earlier Thursday, he announced 44 new cases on the Diamond Princess, which is still carrying nearly 3,500 passengers and crew members. The ship now has 218 people infected with the virus out of 713 tested since it entered Yokohama Port on Feb. 3, the largest cluster of infections outside China.
In all, Japan has 250 confirmed cases of the new disease that apparently started in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December.
China has reported 1,367 deaths among 52,526 cases on the mainland. Two other locations outside the mainland, Hong Kong and the Philippines, have recorded one death each.
Kato said five of the patients sent to hospitals earlier have severe symptoms and are on artificial respirators or under intensive care.
“We are doing our utmost for the health of crew members and passengers who remain on the ship,” Kato told a news conference.
Some experts have questioned Japan's strategy of isolating the passengers and crew in a potentially virus-affected environment on the ship while the disease is already slowly making its way into the country.
“On the ship, infections are getting very dense. ... It now provides a favorable environment for the virus to spread and I think it's time for people to get off,” said Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease prevention expert and former regional director for the World Health Organization. “It’s like we are seeing a very condensed version of what could happen in a local community.”
Omi, who currently heads the Japan Community Health Care Organization, said those people who have tested positive for the virus are “only a fraction” of what could already be spreading outside of the ship. “We should assume that the virus has already been spreading in Japan,” he said.
Later Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a 15.3 billion yen ($139 million) economic package to fight the virus, including funding for the development of vaccines and virus test kits, support for hundreds of returnees from Wuhan and measures to strengthen border controls to minimize the spread of the virus in the country.
Associated Press journalist Richard Colombo contributed to this report.
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