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Virus quarantine over, Japan evacuees emerge ready for home

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Katsuura (Japan) (AFP)

The palm-fringed hotel in the Japanese city of Katsuura is usually a destination for sun-worshipping holidaymakers, but for the last two weeks it has also been a coronavirus quarantine site.

Dozens of Japanese have taken refuge in the beachside resort to wait out a 14-day "self-quarantine" after being evacuated from the Chinese province where a deadly new coronavirus originated.

On Wednesday night, after final test results confirmed all 197 evacuees at the hotel were free of the virus, the first handful began heading home.

"I've received many warm messages. I'm very grateful," a woman, who spoke on condition she would not be identified, told reporters outside the hotel.

Inside the hotel, dozens of evacuees were asked to stay in their rooms and avoid even venturing into the corridors.

"They had to stay in their own room and they couldn't even go out into the corridor. They had to keep to these rules," said a Japanese official.

"I was relieved" when they all tested negative, he added.

Japan has so far sent four flights to evacuate its citizens from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, the first of which landed on January 29.

The 206 people on board were all asked to undergo tests for the virus, with two initially refusing but later changing their minds and agreeing to be checked.

While countries including the United States, France and Britain have required their evacuated citizens to go into quarantine on their arrival, Japanese officials said there was no legal framework permitting them to do the same.

Instead arrivals were asked to "self-quarantine," with many taking the government up on designated accommodation at a hotel in Katsuura, in the Chiba region east of Tokyo.

"It was a comfortable environment," the woman told reporters.

- 'Extremely worried' -

And another evacuee, a man who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the local community had offered enormous support despite initial fears.

"I think people in (Katsuura) were extremely worried when we came here. But they overcame that and really showed their understanding," he said.

"Infecting my family -- that was something I didn't want most of all," he added.

He described receiving messages of support and even origami cranes often made for those recovering from illness.

"I feel so thankful that I can't find the words to express my gratitude."

A handful of residents appeared when they departed, holding up supportive banners.

And a group of locals had previously lit lanterns to show their encouragement for the quarantined people.

Japan has so far diagnosed 28 people with the virus, including at least nine from evacuation flights. That figure does not include at least 174 passengers and crew aboard a quarantined cruise ship, along with a quarantine officer working on the vessel.

The male evacuee said his thoughts were with those on the ship, which will be in quarantine until February 19.

"People on the cruise ship are in a worse situation than we were," he said.

"Our feelings of worry were overcome because of the words of encouragement from people in Katsuura. But people on the cruise ship are not in such circumstances."

"I think there should be more support and understanding for them," he added.

Authorities have taken measures to limit the spread of the virus, restricting entry of people who have recently travelled to Hubei, or those with passports issued in the region.

On Wednesday it expanded those restrictions to cover people who have recently been to Zhejiang province or have passports issued from the area.

Around 36 people were leaving the Katsuura hotel on Wednesday night, with more expected to make their way home in the morning.

Those who arrived on later flights are still waiting out the rest of their quarantine period and are expected to undergo final testing before they are given the all-clear to go home.

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