China’s virus death toll surpasses SARS but new cases fall
BEIJING — China’s virus death toll rose by 89 on Sunday to 811, passing the number of fatalities in the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, but fewer new cases were reported in a possible sign its spread may be slowing as other nations step up efforts to block the disease.
Six more cases were reported in Japan among 3,700 passengers and crew aboard the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess.
In Hong Kong, the 3,600 passengers and crew of the cruise ship Dream World were released from quarantine after authorities said tests found no infections.
South Korea reported a new case in a 73-year-old woman whose relatives visited Guangdong province in southern China. That raised South Korea’s total to 25. Vietnam reported its 14th case, a woman in a northern province where six patients were sickened earlier.
In China, 2,656 new virus cases were reported in the 24 hours ending at midnight Saturday, most of them in the central province of Hubei, where the first patients fell sick in December. That was down by about 20% from the 3,399 new cases reported in the previous 24-hour period.
More than 350 cases have been confirmed outside mainland China.
Experts say the declining daily toll of new cases suggests the virus’s spread might be slowing. They say, however, the total will rise further once Chinese laboratories test a backlog of thousands of samples from possible cases.
“Dramatic reductions” in the virus’s spread in China should begin this month if containment works, said Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity. He assisted the WHO and Chinese authorities during the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Warmer weather will also reduce the virus’s ability to spread and bring people out of enclosed spaces where it is transmitted more easily, Lipkin said.
However, if new cases spike as people return to work after China’s extended Lunar New Year holiday, then “we’ll know we’re in trouble,” Lipkin said in an online news conference.
The fatality toll passed the 774 people believed to have died of SARS, another viral outbreak that also originated in China. The total of 37,198 confirmed cases of the new virus vastly exceeds the 8,098 sickened by SARS.
Meanwhile, a charter flight carrying Filipinos from Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, arrived in the Philippines. The 29 adults and one infant will be quarantined for 14 days, the virus’s maximum incubation period.
In Hong Kong, the 1,800 passengers and 1,800 crew of the World Dream were released after authorities said the crew tested negative. The ship was isolated after eight mainland Chinese passengers were diagnosed with the disease last month.
Port official Leung Yiu-hon said some passengers with symptoms tested negative but there was no need to test all of them because they had no contact with the infected Chinese passengers.
Elsewhere, France closed two schools and tried to reassure vacationers in the Alps after five Britons contracted the virus at a ski resort.
France stepped up a travel alert, recommending against all visits to China except for “imperative reasons.” Italy recommended students returning from China stay home from school for two weeks after the government reported three cases.
In Wuhan, a 1,500-bed hospital built in less than two weeks for virus sufferers accepted its first patients on Saturday, the government announced. Another 1,000-bed hospital built in 10 days opened last week.
The Wuhan city government said it would begin carrying out twice-daily disinfection of hospitals, markets, public toilets, and other facilities starting Sunday.
The Hubei provincial government announced it will pay subsidies to farmers, other food producers, and supermarkets and give tax breaks to companies that donate to anti-virus work, the official Xinhua news agency said. It said the government will subsidize overtime for employees of companies making medical supplies.
On Saturday, the U.S. State Department said two more flights from Wuhan with American citizens, permanent residents, and close relatives landed in the United States. A spokesman said more than 800 American diplomats and others have been evacuated from Wuhan.
The WHO director-general said it will send experts to China starting Monday or Tuesday.
Asked whether that will include members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus replied, “We hope so.”
The American Embassy in Beijing said Saturday a 60-year-old U.S. citizen was among the new fatalities in Wuhan, the first American death reported in the outbreak. A Japanese citizen being treated in Wuhan who was a suspected case also died.
Elsewhere in China, the industrial metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest told residential communities to close their gates and check visitors for fever. The government said the spread of the virus through “family gatherings” had been reported in Chongqing but gave no details.
Airlines and tourism industries have been battered by the loss of Chinese tourists after Beijing canceled group tours and business people put off travel in an attempt to contain the disease.
Hong Kong began enforcing a 14-day quarantine for arrivals from mainland China. The territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has refused demands by some hospital workers and others to seal the border completely.
China’s leaders are trying to keep food flowing to crowded cities despite anti-disease controls and to quell fears of possible shortages and price spikes following panic buying after most access to Wuhan and nearby cities was cut off.
Local authorities have been ordered to speed up food shipments. Informal roadblocks set up by some villages to block outsiders and possible infection were banned.
Public anger simmered over the treatment of a doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded for warning about the virus in December. The 34-year-old ophthalmologist died of the disease this past week.
Li Wenliang became the face of anger at the ruling Communist Party’s controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, chemical spills, and other dangers.
Users of the Sina Weibo microblog service have left hundreds of thousands of messages mourning Li’s death and criticizing the official treatment of him and other whistleblowers.
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