A new strain of coronavirus discovered in China claimed 15 more lives since Saturday, bringing the total death count to 56.
Figures reflecting developments in the past 24 hours revealed 688 new cases, making a total of 1,975 infections in China and over 2,000 internationally in what Chinese President Xi Jinping has classified as a “grave situation.”
A handful of new cases were reported in nearby Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.
Cases have also been identified in several other countries, including the US, France, Japan and Australia. Malaysia and Canada confirmed their first cases of the virus on Saturday.
Chinese officials announced Sunday that the country was banning indefinitely the trade of wildlife products in markets, supermarkets, restaurants, and on e-commerce platforms. The source of the virus has been traced to a seafood market that was illegally selling wildlife.
Places that breed wildlife were placed under quarantine and the transportation of wildlife was also banned.
Quarantines and evacuations
The US embassy in Beijing announced Sunday that the chartered plane arriving Tuesday to transport US citizens out of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak, will have limited capacity and that those “at greater risk” to the virus would be given priority.
French automaker PSA Group said it will also remove French employees from the city, adding that they will be quarantined before being brought back to France.
Several Chinese provinces have banned inter-provincial travel. In Shanghai, officials have stopped cruise ships from moving into and out of its port.
The virus has disrupted Lunar New Year celebration plans for hundreds of millions of people. The holiday, which takes place this week, is among the most significant in China.
Wuhan, home to 11 million people, has been on virtual lockdown for days. Trains and flights into and out of the city in eastern China were canceled and checkpoints were established along major motorways. On Sunday, officials banned the use of most vehicles in the downtown area and said 6,000 taxis will be made available should people need to get around. Authorities are encouraging people to stay at home.
“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog – that’s the only outdoor activity,” Violet Li, a Wuhan resident, told reporters by text message.
Additional medical supplies and staff are due to arrive in the city, including 14,000 protective suits, and 110,000 pairs of gloves, goggles, and masks. Videos circulated on Saturday showing throngs of people lined up for examinations. Many complained they had been turned away because the hospitals were at capacity.
“We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention … But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis,” said Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department, in a news briefing.
Dozens of cities are also under quarantine, with schools and universities postponing the start a new semester until further notice.
Full threat still unclear
Most of the people who lost their lives to the virus were middle-aged or elderly and had a pre-existing medical condition.
Officials caution that the rapid increase in the death toll and number of infections does not necessarily indicate that the disease is spreading more quickly. It may instead reflect improved monitoring and reporting practices.
kp/mm (AP, dpa, Reuters)
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