Each morning, the captain would announce the number of positive cases and take those infected off the ship and to a Japanese hospital. For three days Fehrenbacher waited and worried he’d be next. But no one had come for him, so he realized he had tested negative: “That was the first breath of fresh air.”
Initially Fehrenbacher stayed optimistic, believing the quarantine was working. By the ninth day inside the cabin he shared with his friend—which thankfully had a balcony—the captain had stopped listing the number of new cases. Fehrenbacher believed it had stopped spreading. Yet seconds before doing a live interview with a Canadian news outlet on Feb. 15, he heard the anchor announce 67 new cases on the Diamond Princess that day.
He was shocked—the spread of the virus hadn’t stopped. The captain had just stopped informing the passengers. He felt betrayed. A day earlier, the United States had announced it would evacuate U.S. citizens from the ship as long as they spent another two weeks in quarantine after arriving in California. Fehrenbacher agreed.
A total of 40 American passengers of the Diamond Princess have tested positive for the virus, raising the number of infected in the United States to almost 60. They stay in isolation in hospitals, and thus far the virus has not spread to local communities. But on Tuesday, federal health officials called on Americans to prepare for the “inevitable” spread of the coronavirus in the country. Researchers started the first clinical trial in the U.S. for a drug to treat the coronavirus Wednesday.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the United States,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told reporters. “It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”
The warning comes as the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, is quickly spreading around the world: South Korea saw a rapid rise in cases in the past week with its number rising from 31 to 1,261. In Iran, 19 people have died from the virus, the highest number of fatalities outside China, with 139 more infected. Italy now has 374 cases and 12 deaths as the virus spreads to other countries in Europe.
“We are on the verge of a pandemic,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “I think it’s important to call it a pandemic, not to cause panic but preparation. When you know what you’re facing, you’re better prepared to deal with it.”
In South Korea, the outbreak centers around the southeastern city of Daegu, where half of the cases are clustered among a heretical Christian sect called Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Followers believe its leader is the second coming of Christ. The sect forbids them from wearing glasses or face masks during weekly gatherings. Leaders tell them to attend services even when sick, which has led to the quick spread of the virus.
An infected 61-year-old woman disobeyed doctor’s orders and attended two services at the Shincheonji Church, exposing 1,000 people. Afterward, authorities failed to track down hundreds of other Shincheonji members for health inspections. Experts believe they have gone into hiding because of the stigma attached to their cultish church.
Daegu officials have urged citizens to stay home but, unlike in China, they have not completely shut down the city: Businesses are still open, and people can enter and leave the city. The mayor plans to test all citizens who have flu-like symptoms in the next month. Churches, schools, and public spaces have closed.