The death toll from China’s coronavirus outbreak jumped on Saturday to 41 from 26 a day earlier as the Lunar New Year got off to a gloomy start, with authorities curbing travel and cancelling public gatherings.
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. Health authorities around the world are scrambling to prevent a pandemic.
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.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million, has been in virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights at the airport cancelled 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.
The central Chinese city is building a second hospital “within half a month” to treat cases, state media reported on Saturday.
According to the People's Daily, the new hospital will add 1,300 hospital beds, in addition to another new facility which is being built in Wuhan to deal with the outbreak — reportedly within 10 days.
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.
In a dramatic escalation of the central government's involvement, China deployed 450 military medical staff to Wuhan, state media said.
The medics, who arrived on military aircraft late Friday, include doctors with experience combating SARS or Ebola and will be dispatched to hospitals that are reportedly short on beds due to a crush of infected patients and worried locals.
The National Health Commission also ordered nationwide measures to detect people carrying the virus on planes, trains and buses across the country.
The number of confirmed cases in China stands at 1,287, it said on Saturday.
Hong Kong declares outbreak an 'emergency'
Meanwhile, Hong Kong on Saturday declared the coronavirus outbreak as an “emergency” — the city's highest warning tier — as authorities ramped up measures to reduce the risk of further infections.
The announcement came as city leader Carrie Lam faced criticism in some quarters over her administration's response to the crisis.
Of the five people who have tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong so far, four arrived via a newly built high-speed train terminal which connects with the mainland.
That led to calls from some medical experts and politicians to limit, or even halt, arrivals from China.
Lam held emergency meetings with health officials on Saturday morning after returning from Davos.
“Today I declare the lifting of the response level to emergency,” she told reporters.
Schools and universities, which are currently on a Lunar New Year break, would remain closed until 17 February, Lam said.
All mainland arrivals to Hong Kong will now need to sign health declaration forms, she added, while public events including a new year gala and next month's marathon, would also be called off.
“We haven't seen serious and widespread infections (in Hong Kong), but we are taking this seriously and we hope to be ahead of the epidemic,” Lam said.
Ho Pak Leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said closing the mainland border would be the “single most effective measure” in containing the virus.
Transport links with the mainland should be re-opened “when the epidemic is controlled, when HK officials are awake, when there are enough masks and hand rubs for all Hong Kong citizens,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, Malaysia, France, the United States and Australia.
Australia on Saturday announced its first case of coronavirus, a Chinese national in his 50s, who had been in Wuhan and arrived from China on January 19 on a flight from Guangzhou. He is in stable condition in a Melbourne hospital.
“Given the number of cases that have been found outside of China and the significant traffic from Wuhan city in the past to Australia, it was not unexpected that we would get some cases,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a news conference.
“This is the first confirmed case. There are other cases being tested each day, many of them are negative, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had further confirmed cases.”
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday it had 63 patients under investigation, with two confirmed cases, both in people who had traveled to Wuhan.
Reinforcements to Wuhan
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the new coronavirus an “emergency in China” this week but stopped short of declaring it of international concern.
China’s National Health Commission said on Saturday it had formed six medical teams totaling 1,230 medical staff to help Wuhan. Three of the six teams, from Shanghai, Guangdong and military hospitals have arrived in 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 in breathing and coughing. Most of the fatalities have been in elderly patients, many with pre-existing conditions, the WHO said.
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 and of the lockdown.
Health officials fear the transmission rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel before and 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.
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 and the Forbidden City, the capital’s most famous tourist attraction. Sections of the Great Wall near the capital were also closed off.
Film premieres have been postponed.