BEIJING – China pushed ahead Sunday with emergency measures to isolate coronavirus patients in specialized facilities at the disease-ravaged epicenter, Wuhan, as the number of patient deaths surged past the 774 killed by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-3.
The country’s National Health Commission reported that 89 more people had died Saturday in the two-month epidemic – the highest daily toll to date – as worldwide coronavirus fatalities reached more than 810. Cases have been heavily concentrated in Wuhan and surrounding areas of Hubei province, which has been locked down for two weeks in an attempt to contain the virus.
Even as infections overwhelm the afflicted province, the rest of China may be seeing the effects of strict quarantine measures, Chinese health officials said Sunday. In all parts of China excluding Hubei, the daily number of new infections dropped from nearly 900 on Feb. 3 to 509 on Saturday, the officials said.
World Health Organization officials also say they have seen the number of new cases taper in recent days. “That’s good news and may reflect the impact of the control measures put in place,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, told reporters Saturday. But he added that many patients have not yet been tested and that it remains far too early to make predictions about the number of infections.
An international team of experts led by the WHO will depart for China on Monday or Tuesday to investigate the outbreak, said the director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Medical experts say available data show the disease – officially named “novel coronavirus pneumonia,” or NCP, by Chinese health officials on Saturday – is much more contagious than SARS, but the probability of death for those infected is much lower.
Around the world, cases continue to tick up. The number of confirmed infections rose on Sunday to 70 onboard the cruise liner Diamond Princess, which has been anchored and quarantined off the coast of Japan.
Only the sick are able to disembark.
One of the evacuees was Rebecca Frasure, her husband, Kent Frasure, 42, told The Washington Post by phone on Sunday from the quarantined ship in Yokohama. The couple from Forest Grove, Oregon, had traveled to Disneyland in Hong Kong, Vietnam and other destinations before Japanese medical staff boarded the ship with thermometers. Rebecca Frasure, 35, tested positive for the virus on Thursday, her husband said, and was taken by ambulance to a hospital north of Tokyo.
“She is doing pretty good, no fever or cough,” he said, although symptoms can take as many as 14 days after exposure to appear. Frasure said his wife is being evaluated in a stripped-down contagious disease ward with just a bed, TV and calendar on the wall. Doctors step through a sealed antechamber to see her.
It is an alien experience for her, said Frasure, a technician at Intel. She does not speak Japanese and the physicians use electronic devices to translate confusing medical jargon. But Rebecca, who works for a health-care company, has WiFi and keeps in contact with him and family on FaceTime, he said.
The quarantine on the ship, meanwhile, has become claustrophobic. Frasure had a fever earlier, so he has been restricted to his suite. His Nintendo Switch and reporters calling him for comment help pass the time, he said. The ship captain periodically issues updates over a loudspeaker, but media reports often clue in the passengers before then.
“Usually we know what’s happening before it’s announced,” he said.
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, urged calm as the city-state reported a spike in the number of cases to a total of 40 and raised its alert level. New cases were also reported in Germany and South Korea.
In Hong Kong, where grocery stores have been emptied as worried residents stock up on supplies, the number of cases rose by three to a total of 29 on Sunday. The city’s health authorities said tests for all 3,600 crew and passengers quarantined for the past four days on a cruise ship, the World Dream, came back negative and everyone aboard was released Sunday afternoon.
China faces a crucial test beginning Monday as laborers from across the country trickle back to work in major cities that have been effectively emptied and shut down since the Lunar New Year on Jan. 24.
Officials, concerned about another spike in infections, have tried to delay the return to work. Shanghai is asking companies to dissuade nonlocal employees from returning for several more weeks. In Shenzhen, the iPhone assembler Foxconn has told employees that work is suspended until further notice. Officials in cities ranging from Xian in the north to Tianjin on the east coast have warned travelers from other parts of China that they would be immediately quarantined upon their return.
In a sign that governments are still seeking to prolong closures, state media reported Sunday that the populous Hebei province surrounding Beijing would join a number of other major jurisdictions keeping schools closed until March 1 at the earliest.
At the heart of the epidemic in Wuhan, the situation remains dire.
Officials are rushing to transfer patients into three quarantine facilities with 4,000 beds to alleviate a severe shortage of space inside the city’s overwhelmed hospitals. Hotels and university dorms are being requisitioned and converted into spaces for “centralized quarantine” for patients showing symptoms.
Leishenshan, a second makeshift hospital with 1,600 beds, began accepting patients with severe symptoms beginning Saturday night, state media reported.
Wuhan officials had initially asked all but the most ill patients to stay home in recent weeks due to a shortage of hospital beds, but on Saturday Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the leader of a central government response group, ordered local officials to “take in everyone that should be taken in” to newly established facilities to quarantine confirmed cases.
But risks remain inside medical facilities. Doctors from Wuhan’s Zhongnan Hospital reported that 41 percent of coronavirus patients at their hospital became infected while inside the hospital by other patients and medical staff. The doctors announced their findings in a paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association on Friday.
At another hospital, the Wuhan Mental and Health Center, 50 patients and 30 medical staff were infected due to a lack of caution and protective gear, a doctor, Zhao Ping, told China Newsweek magazine.
Hubei deputy governor Cao Guangjing said Saturday that hospitals in the province only had 80 percent of the masks they required.
One month after patients began surging into area hospitals, many increasingly sick and desperate households say they still cannot secure care and fear time is running out.
Li Lina, a resident in the Hanyang district, beat a gong and shrieked from her high-rise balcony this weekend to beg for help for her and her stricken mother holed up at home. A neighbor filmed her cries and uploaded it to the internet, where it went viral.
Reached by telephone on Sunday, Li explained that her mother’s condition was steadily worsening but she has not been able to secure a hospital bed since Jan. 29, because city regulations allow only confirmed coronavirus patients to get spots.
Li was finally able to administer a nucleic acid test on Friday; the result returned positive for coronavirus but ambiguous. Doctors gave her mother a second exam and Li is waiting for the result to arrive Tuesday.
“I don’t even know if she’ll hold out that long,” Li said as she tended to her mother, who is too feeble to speak and communicates by ringing a bell. “I feel helpless. I can’t watch my mother die.”