China's virus death toll surpasses SARS but new cases fall

BEIJING —
China’s virus death toll rose by 89 on Sunday to 811, passing the number of fatalities in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, but fewer new cases were reported in a possible sign its spread might be slowing as other nations stepped up efforts to block the disease.

Also Sunday, South Korea reported a new case in a 73-year-old woman whose relatives visited Guangdong province in southern China. That raised South Korea’s total to 25.

In China, some 2,656 new virus cases were reported in the 24 hours ending at midnight Saturday, most of them in the central province of Hubei, where the first patients fell sick in December. That was down by about 20% from the 3,399 new cases reported in the previous 24-hour period.

Outside China and Hong Kong, 288 confirmed cases have been reported in 24 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Experts say the declining daily toll of new cases suggests the virus’s spread might be slowing. They say, however, the total will rise further once Chinese laboratories test a backlog of thousands of samples from possible cases.

“Dramatic reductions” in the spread of the virus within China should begin to appear toward the end of the month if containment measures prove effective, said Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, who assisted the WHO and China during the SARS outbreak.

Warmer weather will also reduce the ability of the virus to spread and bring people out of enclosed spaces where they are more likely to become ill, Lipkin said.

However, if there is a spike in new cases as people begin returning to work in coming days, then “we’ll know we’re in trouble,” Lipkin told reporters in an online news conference late Saturday from his U.S. home, where he is under 14-day self-quarantine.

The fatality toll passed the 774 people believed to have died of severe acute respiratory syndrome, another viral outbreak that also originated in China. The total of 37,198 confirmed cases of the new virus vastly exceeds the 8,098 sickened by SARS.

Meanwhile, a charter flight carrying Filipinos from Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, arrived in the Philippines. The 29 adults and one infant will be quarantined for 14 days, the virus’s incubation period.

Elsewhere, France closed two schools and tried to reassure vacationers in the Alps after five Britons contracted the virus at a ski resort.

France stepped up a travel alert, recommending against all visits to China except for “imperative reasons.” Italy recommended students returning from China stay home from school for two weeks after the government reported three cases.

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department said two more flights from Wuhan with American citizens, permanent residents and close relatives landed in the United States. A spokesman said more than 800 American diplomats and others have been evacuated from Wuhan.

The WHO director-general said it will send experts to China starting Monday or Tuesday.

Asked whether that will include members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus replied, “We hope so.”

The American Embassy in Beijing said Saturday a 60-year-old U.S. citizen was among the new fatalities in Wuhan, the first American death reported in the outbreak. A Japanese citizen being treated in Wuhan who was a suspected case also died.

Elsewhere in China, the industrial metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest told residential communities to close their gates and check visitors for fever. The government said the spread of the virus through “family gatherings” had been reported in Chongqing but gave no details.

Japan on Saturday reported three more cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship for a total of 64 . There are 3,700 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess who must remain on board for 14 days.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said foreign passengers on another ship, Holland America’s Westerdam, won’t be allowed into Japan because of suspected cases on board. The ship, with more than 2,000 people, was near Okinawa and was looking for another port.

Airlines and tourism industries have been battered by the loss of Chinese tourists after Beijing canceled group tours and businesspeople to put of travel in an attempt to contain the disease.

Hong Kong began enforcing a 14-day quarantine for arrivals from mainland China. The territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has refused demands by some hospital workers and others to seal the border completely.

China’s leaders are trying to keep food flowing to crowded cities despite anti-disease controls and to quell fears of possible shortages and price spikes following panic buying after most access to Wuhan and nearby cities was cut off.

Local authorities have been ordered to speed up food shipments. Informal roadblocks set up by some villages to block outsiders and possible infection were banned.

Public anger simmered over the treatment of a doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded for warning about the virus in December. The 34-year-old ophthalmologist died of the disease this week.

Li Wenliang became the face of anger at the ruling Communist Party’s controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, chemical spills and other dangers.

Users of the Sina Weibo microblog service have left hundreds of thousands of messages mourning Li’s death and criticizing official treatment of him and other whistleblowers.

While the new virus’ mortality rate is lower than previous pathogens, it is likely to return after the current outbreak is over, Lipkin said.

“I think this one may (come back), and this is an argument that people are using to make for continuing to invest in vaccines and I think it is a reasonable argument,” he said.

Of the extreme measures taken, Lipkin said there was little choice given limited resources and knowledge about the virus.

“It’s sort of like the Titanic going down. You only got a certain number of lifeboats. You have to make some kind of a decision based on what’s best for the country as a whole and for the world.”