BEIJING—Chinese public-health officials urged calm on Sunday even as they warned that the dangerous new virus at the heart of a fast-spreading outbreak is growing more contagious, piling more pressure on an already strained containment effort.
“We are now in a critical period of prevention and control,” Ma Xiaowei, head of China’s cabinet-level National Health Commission, said at a news briefing in Beijing on Sunday to deal with the unnamed coronavirus that has infected more than 2,000 people and killed at least 56, the vast majority of them in central China’s Hubei province.
Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, said at a press briefing late Sunday that he expects that experts will confirm another roughly 1,000 of the suspected infection cases under monitoring. The vast majority of the confirmed cases in mainland China so far are in and around Wuhan. Mr. Zhou said that more than five million people have left Wuhan, leaving about nine million.
The central government also sent the message on Sunday to the rest of the country that is taking over from local officials in Hubei, whose sluggish reaction to the outbreak has drawn criticism.
State media reported that Premier Li Keqiang has been put in charge of the Communist Party’s new “leading small group” of senior officials that is directing response to the virus nationwide. According to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, the group plans to dispatch a team to Hubei to lead efforts on the ground.
In an unprecedented move, officials have locked down several cities in Hubei, including Wuhan. But the cities weren’t sealed off until after millions of residents had scattered around the country to visit family for the annual Lunar New Year holiday.
The virus has quickly spread around the world, to more than a dozen countries in Europe, Australia and Asia, prompting global concern.
On Saturday, health authorities in southern California’s Orange County said a traveler from Wuhan was carrying the virus, the third confirmed case in the U.S. In Hong Kong, a health official confirmed Sunday the city’s sixth case of the new coronavirus, a 47-year-old man who arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday after visiting a market in Wuhan, though not the one at the center of the outbreak. Canada reported its first case, in Toronto.
In Beijing, officials from a number of different government ministries sought to project a sense of control at a news conference but acknowledged shortfalls in supplies and gaps in knowledge about the nature of the coronavirus.
Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reflected the seriousness of the epidemic and the exhaustion felt by the country’s health-care workers as he called for restraint during a frenzied question-and-answer session with reporters.
“Calm, calm down,” the Oxford University-trained immunologist said in English, holding up his hands, before switching to Mandarin: “The virus has become rampant. Everyone here is anxious.”
Authorities highlighted the preventive measures they were implementing. Li Bin, deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, said officials were monitoring the health of migrant workers who had returned home for the holidays, especially those who traveled from Wuhan.
The National Health Commission said it encouraged people to scan their neighborhoods for anyone who might have come from or spent time in Wuhan.
Around the country, workers and community members were dispatched to go door to door asking people if they had been to Wuhan or Hubei province.
“If you have been to Wuhan recently, or have been in contact with and know about people who have come back from Wuhan, please inform the community,” said one poster at an apartment building in Chengdu.
In the southern provinces of Jiangxi and Guangdong, authorities have required everyone to wear face masks in public.
In Wuhan, the center of the epidemic, the medical system continued to struggle to keep pace with the crisis, despite government injections of supplies, staff and money.
The city’s medical workers were in dire need of more protective suits, according to Wang Jiangping, vice minister of industry and information technology. Wuhan is going through 100,000 single-use suits a day, he said. China’s factories, operating at 40% capacity because of the holiday, can produce only 30,000 a day.
He said the government had purchased enough suits from abroad to serve Wuhan’s needs for two more days.
The central government planned to send an additional 1,600 medical personnel to Hubei province within two days, officials from the health commission said.
The Wuhan government had requisitioned hundreds of buses and thousands of taxis to transport anxious patients and harried medical staff around the city, according to Liu Xiaoming, a vice minister of transportation. City authorities had earlier suspended public transportation and nonemergency car traffic in a bid to keep sick residents from infecting others, leading to fears that hospital staff might not be able to get to work.
The CDC’s Mr. Gao said the virus wasn’t showing signs of mutating into a more deadly form. “As it transmits from human to human, it would evolve and mutate based on our past knowledge,” he said.
Mr. Gao said a vaccine would be available soon, though he didn’t give a timeline for its availability.
There is no known cure for the new virus, which causes pneumonia symptoms and is particularly dangerous to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is similar to the coronavirus that caused an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2002 and 2003, which killed nearly 800 people after emerging in southern China.
Unlike SARS, which caused a high fever, initial symptoms associated with the new virus are milder, making it harder to detect, Mr. Gao said.
In a search for treatments, Beijing city health authorities have begun experimenting with antiretroviral medication lopinavir, used to treat HIV, Xinhua reported Sunday.
Beijing’s education committee said on Sunday that all schools in the city, from kindergartens to universities, would be required to delay the spring semester for an unspecified period, state media reported.
Shanghai’s municipal education and health authorities said primary and secondary schools wouldn’t be permitted to hold any teaching or group activities before Feb. 17 and should cancel holiday-return activities. All day-care facilities would be closed until the end of February.
Also on Sunday, local officials on China’s southern coast appeared to waver over whether to be the first outside the Wuhan area to order the lockdown of a city.
China Central Television reported in the morning that Shantou, a port city of about five million people more than 600 miles south of Wuhan, planned to suspend all inbound car, boat and pedestrian traffic at midnight. Public transportation, including ferries and taxis, would also be suspended, the state broadcaster said.
In a sign of how uncertain local authorities are about how to respond to the crisis, officials removed the lockdown announcement from Shantou’s online notice board and replaced it with a message saying transportation would be allowed to carry on as usual after being disinfected.
By the time the second notice was posted, people visiting relatives in Shantou for the Lunar New Year holiday had rushed to get out of town before the deadline. Residents had stocked up on staples, exhausting supplies of rice in supermarkets around the city.
“We adjusted the decision according to our assessment and feedback from the public,” said a person who answered the phone at Shantou’s outbreak-response command center. “Don’t worry, and no need to panic.”
Travel plummeted on Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, compared with the same period the year before, according to Mr. Liu, the transportation official. Railway and air traffic each dropped by more than 40% while road traffic fell by a quarter.
Mr. Liu urged local officials not to set up on their own quarantine barriers that might block the shipments of medical supplies.
Images circulating on Chinese social media sites, which the Journal couldn’t verify, showed blockaded roadways where men were holding clubs and sticks, guarding village entrances and posting signs saying outsiders weren’t welcome.
—Grace Zhu, Raffaele Huang and Joyu Wang contributed to this article.
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