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Japan faces challenge after 2 returnees showing no symptoms test positive for new virus

A store worker puts up a sign that says the shop is "out of face masks" in Chinese in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Asako Takeuchi)
Signs put up on Katsuura Hotel Mikazuki, where returnees from the Chinese city of Wuhan are staying, announce that the facility is off-limits to unauthorized persons in the Chiba Prefecture city of Katsuura, southeast of Tokyo, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Shohei Kato)

The health ministry's announcement that two of the three Japanese nationals who tested positive for the new coronavirus after returning to Japan from the Chinese city of Wuhan on a Jan. 29 government-chartered flight had not been showing symptoms took related parties by surprise.

The two were among the first batch of Japanese nationals to be brought back to Japan from China following an outbreak of the virus, and were taken to a hotel with other returnees. The discovery that they were infected in the absence of symptoms left the hotel and government rushing to deal with the situation.

Officials said a man in his 40s and a woman in her 50s staying at Katsuura Hotel Mikazuki on the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture, southeast of Tokyo, tested positive for the new coronavirus after returning from China on the first government-chartered evacuation plane, which arrived in Tokyo on Jan. 29.

An official from the Cabinet Secretariat who spoke to the press in front of the hotel said the pair seemed calm when the doctor informed them of the test results. They had breakfast and packed their bags on the morning of Jan. 30 before being transferred to a nearby hospital in separate cars.

There are 170 rooms in the hotel but not all of them were available. Some of the Japanese returnees shared rooms, and the pair who tested positive each shared a room with another person. Those who stayed in the same rooms with the pair have been moved to private rooms.

Another two returnees who strongly requested private rooms were transferred by bus to the National Police Academy in the suburban Tokyo city of Fuchu, where returnees on the second charter plane were installed and still has available rooms, on the night of Jan. 30. A total of some 10 doctors and nurses from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare as well as the Chiba Prefectural Government are staying at the hotel to continue monitoring the returnees. The national government will cover the cost of the returnees' hotel stays.

National Institute of Public Health President Yasumasa Fukushima told the press in front of the hotel, "The probability of infection from those who have not developed symptoms is far lower than from the ones who have," indicating that people don't need to worry too much. Regarding the returnees' hotel stay, Fukushima said, "We want them to remain in the hotel at least for the coronavirus' incubation period of two weeks."

Katsuura Hotel Mikazuki on the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture, southeast of Tokyo, where returnees from the Chinese city of Wuhan are staying is seen on the night of Jan. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

According to a source close to the hotel, the staff was briefed by medical workers about accepting the returnees from China. There was no particular confusion among the employees, and the facility prepared enough linens for the returnees' stay. The hotel will also provide bento boxes outside their rooms so that workers and the returnees will not come in direct contact.

Meanwhile, boxes stuffed with food and water supplies were carried to the National Police Academy on the afternoon of Jan. 30 before the first bus carrying the second batch of Japanese returnees arrived at the academy at around 6:30 p.m. The passengers and bus driver, all in face masks, entered the facility with tired looks.

(Japanese original by Shohei Kato, Chiba Bureau, Buntaro Saito and Kazuki Mogami, City News Department)

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