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2 from quarantined ship die as coronavirus death toll passes 2,000

As the death toll for the coronavirus outbreak in China passes 2,000, here is the latest news for Wednesday Feb. 19.
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• Almost 450 passengers allowed to leave quarantined cruise ship in Japan

• U.S. evacuee from cruise ship confirmed to have virus

• American passenger still on cruise ship unclear happens next

• More than 2,110 deaths, over 74,100 confirmed cases in mainland China

• Second coronavirus death recorded in Hong Kong

• China announces measures to cut costs for business affected by outbreak

• Adidas, Puma warn of coronavirus hit to China business

2 people connected to quarantined cruise ship in Japan have died

Two people diagnosed with the coronavirus known as COVID-19 and connected to a quarantined cruise ship have died, Japan’s health minister said in parliament Thursday.

The deaths appear to be the first involving cases from the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Yokohama with around 3,700 passengers and crew after a one-time passenger later tested positive for the virus.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato at the National Diet offered his condolences to the two people who died but said an official announcement and details needed to wait until the ministry reached their next of kin.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK, citing Japanese government officials it did not name, reported that both were Japanese citizens.

It reported that one of the people who died was an 87-year-old man and the other was an 84-year-old woman, and that they died Thursday. The man was taken off the cruise ship on Feb. 11 and the woman was taken off on Feb. 12 after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to NHK.

Both were reported by NHK to have had underlying health issues.

The number of diagnosed cases from the Diamond Princess had grown as rounds of testing have been completed, with at least 621 reported as of Wednesday local time.

People were quarantined on the cruise ship for around two weeks, and those who have tested negative were allowed to leave beginning Wednesday.

Princess Cruises, the operator of the Diamond Princess, said Thursday that around 600 passengers had been cleared by the Japanese health ministry to disembark on Wednesday, and several hundred others were expected to be cleared Thursday.

The two deaths linked to the Diamond Princess brings the number of people who have died in Japan to three. The other death was not connected to the cruise ship.

More than 2,100 people have died of the coronavirus illness known as COVID-19 in mainland China, which is where the outbreak began and where it is centered. The vast majority of cases have been reported in mainland China, according to World Health Organization numbers. — Olivier Fabre and Phil Helsel

Over 100 more deaths reported in China's Hubei Province

Health officials in China's coronavirus-stricken Hubei province reported an additional 108 deaths linked to the illness known as COVID-19, bringing the total deaths on the mainland to more than 2,110.

Hubei health officials also reported 349 new pneumonia cases by the day Wednesday local time; 1,693 new cases were reported the day before.

But the Hubei statement also lists reductions in cases in several parts of the province. The reason for the reductions was not immediately clear. The 108 new deaths in Hubei is also lower than the previous 132 new deaths reported there.

Previously suspected cases in Hubei that showed signs of pneumonia in chest X-rays but did not test positive for genetic traces of the coronavirus were counted as confirmed cases. On Wednesday, China's health authority removed that category of clinically diagnosed cases from its criteria for confirmed cases. The health authority said on Wednesday that nucleic acid tests to identify the presence of the virus were preferred.

The change in diagnostic criteria led to the subtraction of some previously confirmed cases from the tally.

Hubei province, which is where the city of Wuhan is located, is at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The national health commission had previously reported a total of 2,004 deaths on the mainland and more than 74,100 confirmed cases.

Most of the cases and almost all of the deaths have occurred in mainland China. But at least seven people have died in other countries or territories, including two in Iran. — Phil Helsel and Reuters

Iran reports 2 coronavirus deaths

Two Iranians have died in hospital after testing positive for the new coronavirus in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, the head of the city’s University of Medical Sciences told Mehr news agency on Wednesday.

“Two Iranians, who tested positive earlier today for new coronavirus, died of respiratory illness,” the official told Mehr.

Iran’s health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur confirmed their death on Twitter.

Iran confirmed earlier on Wednesday its first two cases of the virus, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said, shortly after reports that preliminary tests on the two had come back positive.

The health ministry said earlier that the patients had been put in isolation.

Rabiei did not give the nationality of the two people infected, but some reports suggested that they were Iranian nationals. — Reuters

Almost 450 passengers disembark quarantined cruise ship in Japan

Almost 450 passengers have been allowed to leave a cruise ship that had been quarantined in Tokyo because of the coronavirus outbreak.

None of them had shown any symptoms of the respiratory illness during a 14-day quarantine period and all had tested negative for the virus, Japan’s health minister Katsunobu Kato told a press briefing after they disembarked on Wednesday.

He added that more were expected to leave later this week.

Princess Cruises, the operator of the ship, said Wednesday that the process will be be delayed as passengers are being tested for the virus, which can take two to three days.

"A certificate that indicates a negative COVID-19 test result is expected to be granted by Japanese health authorities to exit the ship," Princess Cruises said in a statement.

Some 621 people on board have been confirmed to have the virus out of the more than 3,000 who have been tested. There were about 3,700 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess before the quarantine.

More than 300 U.S. citizens and family members were evacuated from the ship Sunday.

The situation on the cruise ship prompted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to announce travel restrictions Tuesday for those leaving the Diamond Princess.

The CDC also said that more than 100 U.S. citizens were still on the ship or in hospitals in Japan.

Remaining passengers on board another cruise ship docked in Cambodia for almost a week left the vessel Wednesday after they tested negative for the coronavirus.

MS Westerdam, operated by Carnival Corp's Holland America Line, arrived in the port of Sihanoukville on Feb. 13 having been turned away at five other ports out of fears it may be harboring the virus.— Olivier Fabre and Phil Helsel

U.S. evacuee from cruise ship confirmed to have virus

Meanwhile, a new case of coronavirus was confirmed among people evacuated from quarantined cruise ship to a California military base, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The patient, who tested positive for the virus in Japan but had no symptoms, was placed in isolation Monday at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa along with another evacuee who tested negative for the virus in Japan but then showed symptoms, according to a statement from representatives of the hospital and Napa County. — Todd Miyazawa and Yuliya Talmazan

American passenger still on cruise ship unclear happens next

An American passenger who remained on the Diamond Princess cruise ship to stay in Japan near his wife, who is in the hospital with COVID-19, said he has no idea what will happen after he eventually gets off the ship.

Kent Frasure, from Forest Grove, Oregon, has been in quarantine for over 14 days but has tested negative for the virus twice. He expects to leave the ship Friday.

Frasure, 42, told NBC News he has not been briefed on what happens when he walks off the ship and whether he will have to observe any travel restrictions while in Japan.

"It's a big concern,” Frasure said. “Am I allowed to walk the streets of Tokyo? Can I walk into a Pizza Hut or something? Can I go into this sushi place or are we stuck again for 14 more days in some sort of housing?”

The State Department said earlier this week that American passengers who didn’t leave on two chartered flights provided by the U.S. government will not be able to return to the U.S. until March 4, which is 14 days after remaining passengers were expected to depart the ship. — Gabe Joselow and Bill Neely

Death toll in mainland China surpasses 2,000

Officials with China's National Health Commission said Wednesday that the number of deaths on the mainland linked to the novel coronavirus that causes illness known as COVID-19 has risen to 2,004.

Health officials also reported more than 74,100 confirmed cases on the mainland.

Of the 136 new deaths, 132 occurred in Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak where the virus is believed to have originated.

The National Health Commission had previously reported a total of 1,868 deaths in mainland China and more than 72,400 confirmed cases. — Phil Helsel

Second coronavirus death recorded in Hong Kong

Hong Kong reported its second death from the new coronavirus Wednesday as authorities drew up plans to fly home hundreds of city residents stranded on a quarantined ship in Japan.

The 70-year-old man who died had underlying illnesses and was one of 62 confirmed cases in the Chinese-ruled city, a Princess Margaret Hospital spokeswoman said.

Image: People wearing masks walk in Central, a business district in Hong Kong
People wearing masks walk in Central, a business district in Hong Kong, on Wednesday. Kin Cheung / AP

In addition to those cases, 52 Hong Kong residents have tested positive for the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan. There were 352 Hong Kong nationals on the ship. — Gabe Joselow and Reuters

Iran reports two preliminary cases of coronavirus

Two preliminary cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Iran, the country’s health ministry said Wednesday.

A health ministry spokesperson said two preliminary tests were confirmed positive in the city of Qom in northern Iran. — Amin Khodadi

China revokes credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters over opinion piece

China has revoked the press credentials of three journalists of the Wall Street Journal after the newspaper declined to apologize for a column with a headline calling China the "real sick man of Asia", the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing that Beijing made several representations to the paper over the column published on Feb. 3, which China criticized as racist and denigrating its efforts to combat the coronavirus epidemic, but that the paper had failed to apologize or investigate those responsible.

"The Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and maliciously attacks China," Geng told reporters. "In light of this, China has decided to revoke the press cards of the three Wall Street Journal correspondents in Beijing starting today."

The ministry spokesman did not identify the journalists — Reuters

Image: The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, China
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, China. China on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 said it has revoked the press credentials of three reporters for the U.S. newspaper Wall Street Journal over a headline for an opinion column deemed by the government to be racist and slanderous.Ng Han Guan / AP file

Adidas, Puma warn of coronavirus hit to China business

German sportswear makers Adidas and Puma both said Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak was hurting their business in China due to store closures and fewer Chinese tourists traveling and shopping in other markets.

Adidas and Puma make almost a third of their sales in Asia, which has been the major growth market for the sporting goods industry in recent years.

The region is also a key sourcing hub, with many sneakers produced in China and other Asian countries.

Adidas said in a statement that its business in the Greater China area had dropped by about 85 percent year-on-year in the period since Chinese New Year on January 25. — Reuters

China announces measures to cut costs for business affected by outbreak

China’s premier announced new measures Tuesday to cut costs for businesses in the wake of the economic damages wreaked by the coronavirus outbreak.

Speaking at China’s powerful State Council meeting, Premier Li Keqiang said the policies are meant to stabilize business performance and maintain employment.

Li said employers’ contributions to the old-age pension, unemployment and workplace safety insurance schemes will be lowered or waived to cushion the impact of the outbreak on businesses, especially smaller firms, and allow them some respite following the resumption of normal production. — Eric Baculinao