Coronavirus: death toll rises to 82 with nearly 3,000 confirmed cases

Chinese government steps up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings

The Chinese city of Wuhan is rushing to build a new hospital in just 10 days to treat patients suspected of contracting coronavirus. The city remains in virtual lockdown as flights are cancelled and checkpoints set up. Video: Reuters

 

The death toll from China’s coronavirus jumped on Monday and hundreds of new infections were confirmed, despite mass quarantines and travel lockdowns across swathes of the country.

The National Health Commission said on Monday that 82 people were now dead as a result of the virus, up from 56 the previous day.

The number of confirmed infections increased to 2,858 – up 792 on the day before – and suspected cases more than doubled overnight to 5,794, the commission said.

The virulence of the contagion has prompted the authorities to effectively lock down the province of Hubei for the past five days.

Across the country, cities and provinces have also introduced several epidemic-prevention measures, including banning long-distance buses entering or leaving, imposing quarantines on people who recently left the Hubei area, making it mandatory to wear face masks in public, cancelling events, and closing venues and public gatherings.

On Monday, the central government announced it was delaying the end of the Lunar New Year holiday by three days until February 2nd, when hundreds of millions of Chinese go on the move, to avoid travellers contributing to the spread of the virus.

Schools and universities would be closed until further notice, officials said.

Despite the restrictions imposed by the virtual lockdown, the mayor of Wuhan said on Sunday that five million people had left the city in the run-up to the Lunar New Year holiday.

Rapid spread

He Qinghua, from the Disease Prevention and Control Bureau, said at a briefing on Monday that the huge number of migrant workers returning to the countryside for the Lunar New Year had been a major factor in the rapid spread of the disease.

He said the level of awareness of the novel coronavirus at a local level across China was relatively low and engaging grassroots Communist Party officials would now be key in the battle.

“We need to fill the gaps and the weak links,” he said. “The most important thing now is mobilising our cadres at the grassroots level so we can do better on the control and prevention work at the local level.”

Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, chest pains and difficulty breathing. A nine-month-old baby was among those infected, officials said, making her the youngest person so far confirmed to have contracted the virus. But most of those affected are older people and those with underlying health conditions.

Health officials said they had established the disease had an incubation period of up to two weeks before people started showing symptoms. In this time people carrying the virus but not showing symptoms could transmit it, they said.

While mainland China still accounts for 98 per cent of the confirmed cases, infections have also been identified in more than a dozen other countries and territories around the world, but no fatalities have been reported outside China to date.

The US and several other governments have announced plans to evacuate their citizens out of the Wuhan area.

There are at least six Irish nationals currently in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The Irish embassy in China said they were monitoring the situation closely and in contact with members of the Irish community in the affected area, but currently had no plans to move Irish citizens out of the area.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who is heading the group charged with curtailing the virus, arrived in Wuhan on Monday on his first inspection tour.

Accelerating

Officials warned on Sunday the spread of the disease was accelerating, but added that it appeared to be less potent than the Sars virus which claimed nearly 800 lives in 2002-03.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus flew to Beijing on Monday to discuss the crisis with Chinese health officials.

Last week the WHO stopped short of declaring the outbreak an international public health emergency, which would have resulted in a wider coordinated action plan to attempt to stem the spread of the pathogen.

“I would like to understand the latest developments and strengthen our partnership with China in providing further protection against the outbreak,” he wrote on social media.

“Building on experience and systems already in place for related pathogens, the WHO has activated global networks of experts, quickly developed advice for countries everywhere, and is working with them to activate their response systems,” he said.

The virus is believed to have emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan that also sold wildlife, with the virus spreading from infected animals – possibly bats or snakes – to humans. On Sunday, China temporarily banned the sale and distribution of wildlife across the country.