Coronavirus toll in China at 425 as Hong Kong reports first death
Chinese health officials working to contain the spread of COVID-19 | Photo: PTI

Coronavirus toll in China at 425 as Hong Kong reports first death

The death toll in China has risen to 425, with the total number of cases being at 20,438, officials said Tuesday (February 4). Meanwhile, the second death outside the Chinese mainland was reported in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

The new figures come after the country opened a new hospital built in 10 days, infused cash into tumbling financial markets and further restricted people’s movement in hopes of containing the rapidly spreading virus and its escalating impact. Japan, meanwhile, has quarantined more than 3,000 people on a cruise ship that carried a passenger who tested positive for the virus.

The latest figures are up from 361 deaths and 17,205 confirmed cases. Other countries are continuing evacuations and restricting the entry of Chinese or people who have recently travelled in the country. In the province at the epicentre of the outbreak, a specialized 1,000-bed hospital started treating patients and a second hospital with 1,500 beds is to open within days.

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Other countries continued evacuating citizens from hardest-hit Hubei province and restricted the entry of Chinese or people who recently travelled to the country.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the number of cases will keep growing because tests are pending on thousands of suspected cases. Chinese President Xi Jinping, presiding over a special meeting of the country’s top Communist Party body for the second time since the crisis started, said “we have launched a people’s war of prevention of the epidemic.”

He told the Politburo standing committee that the country must race against time to curb the spread of the virus and that those who neglect their duties will be punished, state broadcaster CCTV reported. Medical teams from the Peoples Liberation Army were arriving in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, to relieve overwhelmed health workers and to staff the new 1,000-bed hospital, located in the countryside far from the city centre. Its prefabricated wards are equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment and ventilation systems.

A second hospital with 1,500 beds is due to open within days. China’s Shanghai Composite stock index plunged nearly 8 per cent on the first day of trading after the Lunar New Year holiday, despite a central bank announcement that it was putting 1.2 trillion yuan ($173 billion) into the markets. “We are fully confident in and capable of minimising the epidemics impact on the economy,” Lian Weiliang, deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing.

In Hong Kong, medical authorities confirmed a 39-year-old man who was being treated for the virus died on Tuesday morning. The man was a resident of Hong Kong who had travelled to Wuhan last month and returned home on January 23 via a high speed rail link.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced that the semi-autonomous territory will shut almost all but two land and sea border crossings with the mainland at midnight to stem the spread of the virus. Only the land checkpoints at Shenzhen Bay and the bridge to Macao and Zhuhai will remain open.

More than 2,000 hospital workers went on strike earlier in the day, demanding a complete closure of the border, and their union has threatened a bigger walkout Tuesday. Hong Kong was hit hard by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2002-03, an illness from the same family of viruses as the current outbreak and which many believe was intensified by official Chinese secrecy and obfuscation. Chinese scientists said they have more evidence that it likely originated in bats.

In a study published in the journal Nature, Shi Zhen-Li and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that genome sequences from seven patients were 96 per cent identical to a bat coronavirus. SARS is also believed to have originated in bats, although it jumped to civet cats before infecting people. Scientists suspect the latest outbreak began at a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale and in contact with people.

Meanwhile, Japanese health officials said a passenger on a Japanese-operated cruise ship tested positive for the virus after leaving the vessel in Hong Kong on January 25. The Diamond Princess returned to Yokohama carrying more than 3,000 passengers and crew after making port calls in Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa. A team of quarantine officials and medical staff boarded the ship Monday and began medical checks of everyone on board, a health ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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The passengers and crew members may be quarantined on the ship if the captain agrees to do so, the official said. The ship’s captain said Hong Kong’s health authorities notified the ship about the passenger’s infection on Saturday, six days after he got off the ship after not being caught on thermal screening, according to a recording of the announcement tweeted by a passenger.

The patient is currently recovering and is in stable condition, and his traveling companions so far have not been infected, the captain said. “I wish we were informed as soon as they found out, then I could have worn a mask or washed hands more carefully,” the passenger said.

“I was in Hong Kong nine days ago and it seems to be too late now.” South Korea, which has 15 confirmed cases, quarantined 800 soldiers who had recently visited China, Hong Kong or Macao or had contact with people who had, defence ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyunsoo said.

The Philippines banned the entry of all non-citizens from China after two cases were confirmed there, including the only death outside China. The US, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia have imposed similar restrictions despite criticism from China and WHO’s guidance that such measures were unnecessary.

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