BEIJING (AP) — Deaths from the new virus rose to 490 in mainland China Wednesday and the number of new cases increased to 24,324, as China moved patients into newly built or converted hospitals in the hardest-hit city of Wuhan.
In Hong Kong, hospitals workers are striking to demand that the border with mainland China be shut completely to ward off the virus that caused its first death in the territory. But four new cases of the virus without known travel to the mainland have been reported, indicating community transmission.
The growing caseload in Hong Kong "indicates significant risk of community transmission" and could portend a "large-scale" outbreak, said Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Center for Health Protection.
More than 7,000 health workers joined the strike Tuesday, according to the Hospital Authority Employees' Alliance, the strike organizer. Hospitals said they had to cut some services due to the absences.
Hong Kong was hit hard by the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a virus from the same family as the current outbreak. Trust in Chinese authorities has plummeted following months of anti-government protests in the Asian financial hub.
The territory's beleaguered leader, Carrie Lam, criticized the strike and said the government was doing all it could to limit the flow of people across the border. Almost all land and sea links have been closed, but the striking workers want it shut completely.
“Important services, critical operations have been affected," including cancer treatment and care for newborns, Lam told reporters. “So I’m appealing to those who are taking part in this action: Let’s put the interests of the patients and the entire public health system above all other things."
With Wuhan cut-off by rail, air and road, the U.S. government was organizing additional evacuation flights for its citizens still in city Thursday.
The mainland China figures indicated an increase of 65 deaths and 3,887 new cases from the previous day's tally. Outside mainland China, at least 180 cases have been confirmed, including two fatalities, the one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
Most deaths have been among the elderly and those with other health problems, Chinese authorities said. More than 80% were over 60 years old, and more than 75% had an underlying disease, Jiao Yahui, a National Health Commission official, told a news conference Tuesday.
Dr. David Heymann, who led the World Health Organization’s response to the SARS outbreak, said it’s too early to tell when the new virus will peak, but that it appears to still be on the increase.
He said the spike in China’s caseload in recent days is partly attributable to the search being expanded to include milder cases, not only people with pneumonia. He declined to predict whether the virus would ultimately cause a pandemic, or worldwide outbreak. WHO defines a pandemic as sustained transmission of a disease in at least two world regions.
Heymann said as the new virus starts to spread beyond China, scientists will gain a better understanding of it. “What we will see is the clearer natural history of the disease,” he said, as those exposed to the virus “are being traced and watched very closely,” he said.
Nevertheless, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries outside China to share more data on infections, saying detailed information has been provided in only 38% of cases.
In particular, he said, “some high-income countries are well behind in sharing this vital data with WHO. ... Without better data, it’s very hard for us to assess how the outbreak is evolving or what impact it could have and to ensure we’re providing the most appropriate recommendations.”
In Wuhan, patients were being transferred to a new 1,000-bed hospital with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms. A 1,500-bed hospital also specially built is due to open soon. A gymnasium, exhibition hall and cultural center were converted into hospitals with a total of 3,400 beds to treat patients with mild symptoms. The simple beds were placed in tight rows in cavernous rooms without any barriers between them.
One man, Fang Bin, said he saw wards so crowded during a visit to the city's No. 5 Hospital on Saturday that some patients were forced to sit on the ground.
"There are too many patients, it's overcrowded," Fang told The Associated Press. He said he was taken from his home and questioned by police after he posted a video of what he saw online.
Thailand confirmed six more cases Tuesday, raising its total to 25, the highest outside China. Two were motorcycle taxi drivers who had driven for Chinese tourists. Earlier a Thai taxi driver was also diagnosed with the virus. The cases are concerning because they suggest the virus can spread more easily between people.
Associated Press writer Alice Fung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.