BEIJING (AP) — China’s death toll from a new virus increased to 304 on Sunday amid warnings from the World Health Organization that other countries need to prepare in the event the disease spreads among their populations as more nations report local infections.
Meanwhile, six officials in the city of Huanggang, neighboring the epicenter of Wuhan in Hubei province, have been fired over “poor performance” in handling the outbreak, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
It cited the mayor as saying the city’s “capabilities to treat the patients remained inadequate and there is a severe shortage in medical supplies such as protective suits and medical masks.”
Figures from the National Health Commission showed an increase of 45 in the death toll and 2,590 in the number of cases for a total of 14,380, well above the number of those infected in in the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which broke out in southern China before spreading worldwide.
With the outbreak showing little sign of abating, authorities in Hubei and elsewhere have extended the Lunar New Year holiday, due to end this week, well into February. The annual travel crunch of millions of people returning from their hometowns to the cities is thought to pose a major threat of secondary infection at a time when authorities are encouraging people to avoid public gatherings.
All Hubei schools will postpone the opening of the new semester until further notice and students from elsewhere who visited over the holiday will also be excused from classes.
Far away on China’s southeast coast, the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou put off the opening of government offices until Feb. 9, private businesses until Feb. 17 and schools until March 1.
With nearly 10 million people, Wenzhou has reported 241 confirmed cases of the virus, accounting for one of the highest levels outside Hubei. Similar measures have been announced in the provinces and cities of Heilongjiang, Shandong, Guizhou, Hebei and Hunan, while the major cities of Shanghai and Beijing were on indefinite leave pending developments.
Despite imposing drastic travel restrictions at home, China has chafed at those imposed by foreign governments, criticizing Washington’s order barring entry to most non-citizens who visited China in the past two weeks. Apart from dinging China’s international reputation, such steps could worsen a domestic economic already growing at its lowest rate in decades.
The crisis is just the latest to confront Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has been beset by months of anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong, the reelection of Taiwan’s pro-independence president and criticism over human rights violations in the traditionally Muslim northwestern territory of Xinjiang. Economically, Xi faces lagging demand and dramatically slower growth at home while the tariff war with the U.S. remains largely unresolved.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced similar travel measures Saturday, following Japan and Singapore.
South Korea and India flew hundreds of their citizens out of Wuhan, the city at the center of an area where some 50 million people are prevented from leaving in a sweeping anti-virus effort. The evacuees went into a two-week quarantine. Indonesia also sent a plane.
On Sunday, South Korea reported three more cases for a total of 15. They include an evacuee, a Chinese relative of a man who tested positive and a man who returned from Wuhan.
The virus’ rapid spread in two months prompted the World Health Organization on Thursday to declare it a global emergency.
That declaration “flipped the switch” from a cautious attitude to recommending governments prepare for the possibility the virus might spread, said the WHO representative in Beijing, Gauden Galea. Most cases reported so far have been people who visited China or their family members.
The agency acted out of concern for poorer countries that might not be equipped to respond, said Galea. Such a declaration calls for a coordinated international response and can bring more money and resources.
WHO said it was especially concerned that some cases abroad involved human-to-human transmission.
“Countries need to get ready for possible importation in order to identify cases as early as possible and in order to be ready for a domestic outbreak control, if that happens,” Galea told The Associated Press.
Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Vietnam all reported new cases Saturday. Spain confirmed its first case — a German man who had close contact with an infected person in Germany and then traveled to the Canary Islands with friends. Four friends who were hospitalized with him have not shown symptoms.
Both the new virus and SARS are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that cause the common cold.
The death rate in China is falling, but the number of confirmed cases will keep growing because thousands of specimens from suspected cases have yet to be tested, Galea said.
“The case fatality ratio is settling out at a much lower level than we were reporting three, now four, weeks ago,” he said.
Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with family or other close contact, they are concerned about cases of infection spreading to people who might have less exposure.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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