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Thursday February 27th, 2020 2:54AM

China death toll reaches 259; WHO warns countries to prepare

By The Associated Press
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BEIJING (AP) — China’s death toll from a new virus rose to 259 on Saturday and a World Health Organization official said other governments need to prepare for“domestic outbreak control” if the disease spreads in their countries.

Beijing criticized Washington’s order barring entry to most foreigners who visited China in the past two weeks.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced similar measures Saturday, following Japan and Singapore.

South Korea and India flew hundreds of their citizens out of Wuhan, the city at the center of an area where some 50 million people are prevented from leaving in a sweeping anti-virus effort. The evacuees went into a two-week quarantine. Indonesia also sent a plane.

The number of confirmed cases in China rose to 11,791, surpassing the number in the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. The virus’ rapid spread in two months prompted the World Health Organization on Thursday to declare it a global emergency.

That declaration “flipped the switch” from a cautious attitude to recommending governments prepare for the possibility the virus might spread, said the WHO representative in Beijing, Gauden Galea. Most cases reported so far have been people who visited China or their family members.

The agency acted out of concern for poorer countries that might not be equipped to respond, said Galea. Such a declaration calls for a coordinated international response and can bring more money and resources.

WHO said it was especially concerned that some cases abroad involved human-to-human transmission.

“Countries need to get ready for possible importation in order to identify cases as early as possible and in order to be ready for a domestic outbreak control, if that happens,” Galea told The Associated Press.

On Friday, the United States declared a public health emergency and President Donald Trump signed an order barring entry to foreign nationals who visited China within the last 14 days, which scientists say is the virus' longest incubation period. The restrictions don't apply to immediate family of American citizens and permanent residents.

China criticized the U.S. controls and “unfriendly comments” that Beijing was failing to cooperate.

“Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the U.S. rushed to go in the opposite way. Certainly not a gesture of goodwill,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that despite the emergency declaration, there is “no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.”

Meanwhile, iPhone-maker Apple announced Saturday that it was closing all of its 42 stores as well as its corporate offices in mainland China, one of its largest markets, until Feb. 9.

The ruling Communist Party postponed the end of the Lunar New Year holiday in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, for an unspecified “appropriate extent” and appealed to people there to stay home.

Another locked-down city in Hubei, Huanggang, on Saturday banned almost all residents from leaving their homes in the most stringent controls imposed yet. The government said only one person from each household would be allowed out to shop for food once every two days.

“Others are not allowed to go out except for medical treatment, to do epidemic prevention and control work or to work in supermarkets and pharmacies,” it said in an announcement.

China’s anti-disease controls started with the Jan. 23 suspension of plane, bus and train links to Wuhan, an industrial center of 11 million people. The lockdown has spread to surrounding cities.

The holiday, China's busiest annual travel season, ends Sunday in the rest of the country following a three-day extension to postpone the return to factories and offices by hundreds of millions of workers. The official Xinhua News Agency said people in Hubei who work outside the province also were given an extended holiday.

The party decision “highlighted the importance of prevention and control of the epidemic among travelers,” Xinhua said.

Beginning Sunday, the United States will direct flights from China to seven major airports where passengers can be screened. Those returning from Hubei province will be subject to a 14-day quarantine. On Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved a request from the Department of Health and Human Services for the possible use of military facilities to accommodate 1,000 people who may have to be quarantined upon arrival from overseas.

American Airlines, British Airways, Finnair and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific have canceled or cut back service to mainland China. Vietnam suspended all flights to China. Delta Air Lines said Saturday that it was accelerating plans to suspend its flights between the U.S. and China, with the last flight from China now leaving Sunday.

The U.S. order followed a travel advisory for Americans to consider leaving China. Japan and Germany also advised against nonessential travel to China. Britain did as well, except for Hong Kong and Macao.

Countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Turkey all evacuated some citizens from China on Saturday. The Kremlin said Russia would use its air force planes starting Saturday for evacuations.

Germany's defense minister said a plane carrying 128 passengers, most of them German citizens, was refused permission to land and refuel in Moscow due to what the Russians said was lack of capacity. The military transport plane had to divert to Helsinki before it landed in Frankfurt. None of the people aboard was suspected of infection but they all will be quarantined at a military base for two weeks as a precaution, according to the German Foreign Ministry.

At least 24 countries have reported cases since China informed WHO about the new virus in late December.

Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Vietnam all reported new cases Saturday. Spain confirmed its first case — a German man who had close contact with an infected person in Germany and then traveled to the Canary Islands with friends. Four friends who were hospitalized with him have not shown symptoms.

Both the new virus and SARS are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that cause the common cold.

The death rate in China is falling, but the number of confirmed cases will keep growing because thousands of specimens from suspected cases have yet to be tested, WHO's Galea said.

“The case fatality ratio is settling out at a much lower level than we were reporting three, now four, weeks ago,” he said.

Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with family or other close contact, they are concerned about cases of infection spreading to people who might have less exposure.

___

Associated Press writers Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Hau Dinh in Hanoi, Vietnam, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

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