SHANGHAI — A U.S. citizen died from the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, American officials said on Saturday. It was the first known American death from the illness, and was likely to add to diplomatic friction over Beijing’s response to the epidemic.
The death is also certain to raise questions over whether the Trump administration and the State Department in particular have taken sufficient action to ensure the safety of Americans in China and to aid in the evacuation of those who want to leave.
In a statement, the State Department took a defensive tone, saying that since Jan. 29, it had evacuated around 850 people, most of them Americans, on five charter flights out of Wuhan.
The agency said it had “no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad,” but there are no current plans to conduct additional evacuation flights, even as some Americans in other parts of China have been asking for the U.S. government to evacuate them.
Relations between Washington and Beijing have been tense for years over issues including trade, technology and human rights. While Chinese officials have touted the importance of international cooperation to combat the virus, doubts have arisen in recent days about China’s willingness to accept a helping hand — particularly from the United States.
Although some Trump administration officials have privately expressed skepticism over China’s handling of the outbreak, President Donald Trump himself lavished praise on Chinese leaders Friday. Trump told reporters in Washington that he had spoken with President Xi Jinping of China on the telephone late Thursday. “They’re working really hard, and I think they’re doing a very professional job,” he said.
Trump has said often that he likes and admires Xi, and he has toned down his attacks on China since the two sides signed an agreement last month to halt a damaging trade war that Trump started in 2018.
Few details about the American, who died on Thursday, were immediately available. According to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the person was 60 years old and died at Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, the inland metropolis at the center of the epidemic. Two people familiar with the matter said the person was a woman and had underlying health conditions.
It was not clear whether the woman had tried to leave the city on any of the flights organized by the State Department, which have evacuated diplomats and other American citizens from Wuhan, Beijing and other parts of China.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said. “Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
Word of the death spread as frustrations over Beijing’s handling of the epidemic mounted within China and surfaced at the diplomatic level as well. The virus has killed at least 700 people in China, sickened thousands more and spread across the globe.
For more than a month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been offering to send a team of experts to China to observe the outbreak and help if possible. But no invitation has come.
The World Health Organization, which made a similar offer about two weeks ago, appeared to have faced the same cold shoulder. But the agency said Saturday that it had identified a team of experts to go to China and that the team’s leader would go Monday or Tuesday, with the rest of the team following later.
Current and former health officials and diplomats said they believed the reluctance came from China’s top leaders, who do not want the world to think they need outside help.
Within China, public discontent about the government’s response to the crisis reached an extraordinary peak on Friday after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who had warned his colleagues early on about the new virus but was reprimanded for illegally spreading rumors.
After Li’s death, grieving internet users posted messages expressing anger over his treatment and demanding freedom of speech — unheard-of in China’s authoritarian political system.
Communist Party officials said Friday that they would send a team from the powerful anti-corruption committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding Li’s death. Chinese state news media reported Saturday that the government was also sending two senior officials to Wuhan to reinforce efforts to bring the outbreak under control.
It was not immediately clear if the appointments on Saturday amounted to a reshuffling of the local leadership or were simply an effort to reinforce officials on the front line. Still, it appeared to be an acknowledgment that authorities in Wuhan had been overwhelmed.
Japan said Saturday that one of its citizens had died in a Wuhan hospital from a suspected case of the coronavirus. But the Japanese Foreign Ministry said that based on information it received from Chinese authorities, it could not confirm whether the man, who was in his 60s, had been infected with the new virus. The ministry called the cause of death viral pneumonia.
China’s Foreign Ministry said this past week that as of noon on Thursday, 19 foreign nationals in the country had been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Two of them had recovered and were discharged from the hospital. The other 17 were still receiving treatment.
As the virus spreads, China is confronting a growing sense of isolation — a stark reversal for the country after decades of economic and diplomatic integration with the rest of the world. Many countries, including the United States, have placed entry restrictions on travelers from China. Airlines have canceled flights. Fears of the virus have fueled anti-Chinese racism in some parts of the world.
Chinese officials have criticized the United States both for evacuating Americans from China and for imposing travel curbs, saying that such moves could spread panic. On Friday, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to be trying to ease tensions.
Pompeo said the United States was prepared to spend up to $100 million to help China and other countries fight the epidemic. Pompeo also said the State Department had helped transport about 18 tons of donated medical supplies, including masks, gowns and gauze, to China in the past week.
Trump praised China’s handling of the crisis on a phone call with Xi on Friday. And in a pair of Twitter posts, Trump said Xi was leading “what will be a very successful operation.”
“He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus,” Trump wrote.
But other American officials have quietly voiced concerns about China’s response to the epidemic. The confirmation on Friday that repeated offers of help to China had been ignored only deepened the sense of worry.
Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said at a news briefing on Friday that he had recently reiterated the CDC offer to his Chinese counterpart, Dr. Ma Xiaowei.
Asked about the holdup, Azar said: “It’s up to the Chinese. We continue to expect fully that President Xi will accept our offer. We’re ready and willing and able to go.”
In its statement on the death of the American in Wuhan, the State Department said American citizens should heed its Feb. 2 advisory not to travel to China. “We are working around the clock to inform U.S. travelers of the risks related to the novel coronavirus, to assist Americans in need, and to combat the spread of this outbreak,” it said.
To demonstrate that its evacuation flights appeared to have met immediate needs of Americans in Wuhan, the agency said its last charter flight, on Thursday, had extra seats after accommodating all Americans on the manifest, so officials were able to offer seats to more than 30 Canadians.