A senior House Republican is pressuring the Trump administration to evacuate over 400 American citizens from a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan, after a friend stuck on the boat relayed concerns about the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe is leading a congressional letter calling on the federal government to bring those stranded on the ship back to the U.S. for testing. He also told POLITICO he lobbied for an evacuation during a Wednesday night call with health officials that included Arnold Hopland, a longtime friend of Roe's who is stranded aboard the ship, where over 200 passengers have been infected.
Hopland during the call described the deteriorating medical conditions aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, warning officials that the crew has little medical training or ability to enforce key quarantine practices.
"We had about an hour conversation last night on what we should do," said Roe. "Why not get them out, get them back to this country and put them in a place where we know they're not going to be exposed to more virus?"
In an interview, Hopland called the ship a "petri dish" and criticized Japanese authorities' management of the situation. Passengers have received little information about the virus' spread on board or how the crew is being protected.
"This is no quarantine — it's just a pack of people," he said. "The crew is scared to death … they're frightened and they're packed together in tight quarters, working elbow to elbow."
The U.S. is sending a team to the ship to evaluate the situation. But federal health officials in charge of the coronavirus remain hesitant to go as far as evacuating Americans, Roe said, and during Wednesday’s call appeared more focused on trying to contain the outbreak to the cruise ship.
HHS defended its response. “CDC is working in close collaboration with Japanese health authorities to ensure precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of illness on the Diamond Princess cruise ship," a spokesperson said, adding that CDC had deployed an expert to assist the Japanese health department, in addition to four CDC experts supporting the U.S. embassy in Japan.
"The U.S. Government is in contact with American passengers and crew members and is providing ongoing recommendations to help protect their health," the spokesperson added. "CDC is constantly evaluating the situation to determine if additional action or adjustment in approach is warranted."
Japanese health officials on Thursday also said they would begin limited evacuations of the most vulnerable patients, beginning with the elderly, amid mounting criticism.
There are reportedly 218 confirmed coronavirus cases on the boat, including 44 new patients who tested positive on Wednesday. That total includes a Japanese quarantine inspector and about 35 Americans, Hopland said.
The number is likely to climb, as just 713 of the ship's nearly 3,500 passengers and crew have reportedly been tested so far.
Hopland has offered federal health officials a rare firsthand account of the situation on the cruise ship, which has been held at sea since Feb. 4. Passengers have been allowed out on the boat's deck briefly on four occasions, Hopland said, during which there were few restrictions on their interactions. Many are no longer wearing the face masks that were initially distributed.
A primary care doctor, Hopland said he's largely passed the time in his cabin working on a plan to reduce prescription drug prices.
Roe worked to set up the call with Robert Kadlec, the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, who stepped in after the Tennessee Republican raised concerns at a member briefing on Wednesday. The situation has been managed by the Japanese health department, with some U.S. federal health officials complaining that they have been left in the dark. Passengers on the cruise also have said the State Department did not respond to their initial inquiries for days.
Roe argued that the ship is not designed to be a quarantine facility and that, based on Hopland's account, there are few on board with the training necessary to treat and slow the coronavirus' spread.
"It's the second-biggest concentration of coronavirus outside of Wuhan," he said. "There's nobody in the world better at this than we are, at evacuating people. And we've got lots of airplanes."
Roe and Hopland also raised concerns to health officials about the communication with passengers stranded on board, including claims made by the U.S. embassy that they would be free to leave as soon as the 14-day quarantine is over.
Hopland, who said he's extensively studied the 1918 flu pandemic that infected 500 million and killed 50 million people around the world, called that idea the most concerning point of his experience so far.
"The plan was to, on [Feb. 19], release all the American citizens from the ship to get on commercial aviation," he said. "They're creating a whole cadre of Typhoid Mary's and then launching them to the United States."
That plan has since been abandoned, and Roe said health officials on the Wednesday call agreed the embassy had "gotten out in front of themselves."
Several lawmakers are joining Roe's push for an evacuation after hearing about Hopland's account this week, he said, and signed onto the letter sent to HHS, CDC, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
“From firsthand accounts, we are concerned about the existing level of care available on the ship, particularly to the 428 U.S. citizens aboard, as well as the national security concerns posed by reported quarantine conditions,” the nine House lawmakers wrote.
Hopland, meanwhile, said he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade both the Bush and Obama administrations to plan more extensively for the threat of a worldwide pandemic — and now hopes he'll have a newfound platform for persuading the Trump administration to develop a detailed quarantine plan.
"This situation has provided a test site for both how this particular virus is transmitted and how we might handle another pandemic," Hopland said. "Perhaps this time people will take it more seriously."