China virus toll hits 41; Australia reports first four cases

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BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from China’s coronavirus outbreak jumped on Saturday to 41 as the Lunar New Year got off to a gloomy start, with Hong Kong declaring a virus emergency, scrapping celebrations, and restricting links to mainland China.

Australia on Saturday confirmed its first four cases, Malaysia confirmed three and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday, as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Saturday declared a virus emergency in the Asian financial hub, with five confirmed cases, immediately halting official visits to mainland China and scrapping official Lunar New Year celebrations.

Inbound and outbound flights and high speed rail trips between Hong Kong and Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, would be halted, and schools, now on Lunar New Year holidays, would remain shut until Feb. 17. The territory was also treating 122 people suspected of having the disease.

The death toll in China rose to 41 on Saturday from 26 a day earlier and more than 1,300 people have been infected globally with a virus traced to a seafood market in the central city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.

Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, made an appeal on Saturday for masks and protective suits. Hospitals in the city have made similar pleas.

“We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention … But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis,” he told a news briefing.

Vehicles carrying emergency supplies and medical staff for Wuhan would be exempted from tolls and given traffic priority, China’s transportation ministry said on Saturday.

Wuhan said it would ban non-essential vehicles from its downtown starting Sunday to control the spread of the virus, further paralyzing a city of 11 million that has been on virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights canceled and checkpoints blocking the main roads leading out of town.

Authorities have since imposed transport restrictions on nearly all of Hubei province, which has a population of 59 million.

In Australia, three men, aged 53, 43 and 35 in New South Wales were in stable condition after they were confirmed to have the virus after returning from Wuhan earlier this month.

A Chinese national in his 50s, who had been in Wuhan, was also in stable condition in a Melbourne hospital after arriving from China on Jan. 19, Victoria Health officials said.

State-run China Global Television Network reported in a tweet on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.

It was not immediately clear if his death was already counted in the official toll of 41, of which 39 were in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located.

U.S. coffee chain Starbucks said on Saturday that it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald’s in five Hubei cities.

PROTECTIVE SUITS

In Beijing on Saturday, workers in white protective suits checked temperatures of passengers entering the subway at the central railway station, while some train services in eastern China’s Yangtze River Delta region were suspended, the local railway operator said.

The number of confirmed cases in China stands at 1,287. The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday it had 63 patients under investigation, with two confirmed cases. While China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after cover-up of the 2002/2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread, officials in Wuhan have come in for criticism over their handling of the current outbreak.

In rare public dissent, a senior journalist at a Hubei provincial newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party on Friday called for a “immediate” change of leadership in Wuhan on the Twitter-like Weibo. The post was later removed.

REINFORCEMENTS TO WUHAN

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus an “emergency in China” this week but stopped short of declaring it of international concern.

People wearing masks are seen at the Bund in Shanghai, China January 25, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Human-to-human transmission has been observed in the virus.

China’s National Health Commission said it had formed six medical teams totaling 1,230 medical staff to help Wuhan.

Hubei province, where authorities are rushing to build a 1,000 bed hospital in six days to treat patients, announced on Saturday that there were 658 patients affected by the virus in treatment, 57 of whom were critically ill.

The newly-identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing. Most of the fatalities have been in elderly patients, many with pre-existing conditions, the WHO said.

GRAPHIC: The spread of a new coronavirus – here

NEW YEAR DISRUPTIONS

Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, though some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.

There are fears the transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which began on Saturday, although many have canceled their plans, with airlines and railways in China providing free refunds.

The virus outbreak and efforts to contain it have put a dampener on what is ordinarily a festive time of year.

Sanya, a popular resort destination on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, announced that it was shutting all tourist sites, while the island’s capital city, Haikou, said visitors from Wuhan would be placed under 14-day quarantine in a hotel.

Slideshow (23 Images)

Shanghai Disneyland was closed from Saturday. The theme park has a 100,000 daily capacity and sold out during last year’s Lunar New Year holiday.

Beijing’s Lama Temple, where people traditionally make offerings for the new year, has also closed, as have some other temples.

Reporting by Sophie Yu, Yilei Sun, Judy Hua, Roxanne Liu, Se Young Lee and Cate Cadell; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Yawen Chen in Beijing and Felix Tam in Hong Kong. Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Sam Holmes

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