Feb. 18 (UPI) -- The death toll from an outbreak of the coronavirus has topped 2,000, health officials said Wednesday as South Korea, Canada, Australia and Britain rush to evacuate citizens from a cruise ship that is quarantined off Japan's coast amid a drastic increase of COVID-19 infections among its passengers.
The Diamond Princess, anchored in Japan's Yokohama Port with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew, is the world's largest cluster of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside China, with 88 new cases confirmed Tuesday that raised the total to 542 passengers infected with the disease since it was placed under a 14-day quarantine in early this month.
Japan's Ministry of Health said passengers who test negative for the coronavirus will be able to leave starting Wednesday, when the quarantine expires.
However, a South Korean presidential plane touched down early Wednesday at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul with six nationals and a Japanese spouse on board who were evacuated from the ship, Yonhap reported.
The plane landed at Haneda Airport in nearby Tokyo Tuesday night for the repatriation mission, departing Japan in the early hours of Wednesday.
It was originally reported that of the 14 South Koreans who are aboard the Diamond Princess, four would be evacuated along with the Japanese spouse. The remaining South Koreans are to disembark the vessel later this week if they test negative for COVID-19.
Britain also issued a statement Tuesday stating it was coordinating a flight "as soon as possible," and Australia is planning to evacuate more than 200 nationals on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Canada also said an aircraft it charted earlier in the week was in the air heading to Japan and was to return to the North American country on Thursday.
"The departure date will be confirmed once final arrangements with the government of Japan and Princess Cruises are in place," the Canadian government said in a statement.
It did not state how many of the 256 Canadian passengers of the Diamond Princess would be evacuated, though the 43 who have tested positive for the virus will remain in the hospital in Japan.
News of the evacuations follows two chartered flights returning to the United States with 328 American evacuees from the cruise ship late Sunday and early Monday.
Among the passengers were 14 who tested positive for COVID-19, nearly doubling the number of confirmed cases in the United States to 29. Ninety-two Americans remain under quarantine on the ship.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that all people currently on board the Diamond Princess will be under travel restrictions to the United States. They must wait at least 14 days after leaving the cruise ship before traveling to the United States.
"After disembarkation from the Diamond Princess, these passengers and crew will be required to wait 14 days without having symptoms or a positive coronavirus test result before they are permitted to board flights to the United States," the CDC said in a statement.
If someone who had been on the cruise ship travels to the United States within the 14-day time period, they must undergo a mandatory quarantine in the United States until the two weeks is up.
Meanwhile, China's National Health Commission increased its death toll on Wednesday to 2,004 after 136 people died in the previous 24 hours. Among the newly recorded deaths, 132 occurred in the epicenter of Hubei province, including 116 in the city of Wuhan, where the disease is believed to have emerged.
Globally, the death toll stood at 2,009 as France, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan have each reported a death outside mainland China.
China also said the number of infections increased by 1,749 over Monday to 74,185.
World Health Organization officials said Tuesday there have been 92 cases of person-to-person transmission in 12 countries outside of China, but the agency doesn't have sufficient data from many of these countries to make "meaningful comparisons."
"We have not seen sustained local transmission of coronavirus except in specific circumstances like the Diamond Princess cruise ship," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news briefing in Geneva.
Mike Ryan, director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said officials in Japan initially decided to quarantine passengers on the Diamond Princess, where they could be "kept together" and monitored, but that "clearly, there has been more transmission than expected."
WHO and other experts plan to study what led to such widespread and rapid transmission on the Diamond Princess, but Ryan urged the public to keep the "event in perspective."
"The vast majority of people on the ship don't have COVID-19," he said, adding that many of the cases seem to be "mild disease."
As part of its global COVID-19 response efforts, WHO has shipped personal protective equipment, or PPE, to 21 member countries, and will provide the gear to another 106 countries in the coming weeks.
The agency has also provided COVID-19 testing kits to 40 countries in Africa and 29 in the Americas, which means they will have their own testing capacity by the end of this week.
According to Tedros, these countries -- most of them low-income -- had been sending samples to other countries for testing and waiting several days for results. Thanks to these initiatives, "we still have a chance of preventing a broader global catastrophe," he said.
Meanwhile, Chinese health officials announced the death of a doctor at ground zero of the widening epidemic after he contracted the deadly coronavirus while caring for infected patients.
Liu Zhiming, director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, died Tuesday at age of 51, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said.
"Since the outbreak, comrade Liu Zhiming, regardless of his personal safety, led the medical staff of Wuchang Hospital to fight the epidemic and made important contributions to the prevention and control of new-type coronavirus pneumonia in our city," the commission said in a statement.
Liu's death is the latest among health professionals fighting the disease in China's Hubei province with officials stating last week more than 1,700 front-line medics had been infected, six of whom had died.
Among the dead is 34-year-old Li Wenliang -- an ophthalmologist at Wuhan who was punished by police for attempting to inform friends and family online in December when the outbreak began. His death attracted widespread anger, forcing the government to initiate an investigation.