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Death toll surges past 1,500

  • First death outside Asia in France
  • 67 more positive cases in japan cruise
The death toll from China’s new coronavirus epidemic jumped past 1,500 on Saturday but new infections fell following a mid-week surge caused by a change in the way cases are counted.

In France, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist died from the new coronavirus—the first outside Asia—French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said.

Only three other deaths have been recorded outside mainland China—in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan.

More than 66,000 people have now been infected in China from a virus that emerged in central Hubei province in December before spreading across the country a month later and causing global panic.

READ: Global health emergency eyed over outbreak

Some 1,700 medical workers have been infected, with six dying from the COVID-19 illness, officials said, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain the deepening health crisis.

Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged that the outbreak exposed “shortcomings” in the country’s health emergency response system.

READ: China leader under scrutiny over crisis handling

In nearby Japan, another 67 people on board a cruise ship quarantined of the coast have tested positive for the disease, according to Japan’s health minister.

The new cases, from 217 tests, bring the number of people diagnosed on the 

Diamond Princess to 285, excluding a quarantine officer who also contracted the disease.

Americans evacuated

At the same time, the United States plans to evacuate Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship held in quarantine at a Japanese port since early February, the US embassy said.

Washington will send a plane to Japan for the evacuation on Sunday, it said in a letter to US citizens on board, adding that evacuees will still be required to undergo a further quarantine of two weeks after their arrival in the US.

It is not clear when the plane will depart Japan, but the letter said it will land at Travis Air Force Base in California.

“Passengers will be screened for symptoms and we are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight,” the letter said.

“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time,” it added.

There were more than 3,700 people on the ship when it arrived off the Japanese coast, but more than 200 have been diagnosed with the newly named COVID-19 coronavirus and taken to local hospitals.

The illness has killed more than 1,500 people and infected at least 66,000 in neighboring China while spreading to more than two dozen other countries, sparking an unprecedented containment effort.

Some people on the ship suffering from other health conditions requiring medical attention have also been taken off. 

In quarantine

Those remaining on board will be in quarantine until at least February 19.

Battling the outbreak is a “big test for the country’s governance system and governance ability,” Xi said as he chaired a political meeting on government reforms this week, according to state media.

Chinese authorities have placed some 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.

A number of cities far from the epicenter have also imposed tough measures limiting the number of people who can leave their homes, while schools remain closed nationwide and many companies have encouraged employees to work from home.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China and major airlines have cut services with the country.

But the epidemic has continued to spread across China and hundreds of cases have emerged in more than two dozen countries.

In Singapore, which has 67 confirmed cases, the Roman Catholic Church said it was suspending all masses indefinitely to help prevent the spread of the virus and urged the faithful to follow services on YouTube or the radio.

Fewer new cases

The National Health Commission reported 143 new deaths on Saturday, with all but four in Hubei, raising the toll to 1,523.

The commission also reported 2,641 new cases of the COVID-19 strain, with the vast majority in Hubei.

The number, however, was almost half those reported the previous day.

The scale of the epidemic swelled this week after authorities in Hubei changed their criteria for counting cases, adding thousands of new patients to their tally.

Previously, they were counting only cases with a positive lab test result but are now also including those “clinically diagnosed” through lung imaging.

Officials said the change was necessary to ensure that patients get treated early amid reports of backlogs in lab tests.

The revision added nearly 15,000 patients to Hubei’s tally on Thursday, with the World Health Organization noting that cases going back weeks were retroactively counted.

“We’re seeking further clarity on how clinical diagnosis is being made to ensure other respiratory illnesses including influenza are not getting mixed into the COVID-19 data,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.

There were over 4,800 cases reported in Hubei on Friday and 2,420 on Saturday.

The number of new confirmed cases has been steadily falling outside Hubei, with 221 infections reported on Saturday.

Epidemic peak

A top Chinese scientist had predicted that the epidemic could peak by the end of this month after the number of new cases had fallen earlier in the week.

The WHO cautioned that it was “way too early” to make any predictions about the disease’s trajectory.

Authorities said Friday 1,716 medical workers have been infected during the outbreak, with six dying from the illness.

Most of the infections among health workers were in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, where many have lacked proper masks and gear to protect themselves in hospitals dealing with a deluge of patients.

The grim figures come a week after grief and public anger erupted over the death of a whistleblowing doctor who had raised the alarm about the virus in December and been reprimanded and silenced by police in Wuhan. 

READ: 4 more Pinoys aboard cruise ship test positive

READ: Nations take drastic steps to rim spread

READ: Public warned: No cure for n-CoV; only hygiene

Topics: coronavirus , death toll , Xi Jinping , Diamond Princess , Agnes Buzyn
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