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China virus deaths pass 1,500; US plans to evacuate citizens from cruise ship

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.

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.
Beijing’s municipal government enacted a rule on Friday requiring all people coming to the capital to quarantine themselves for 14 days, warning that violators would be punished, according to official media. It was unclear how authorities would enforce the measure.

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.

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.

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.

Cruise ship evacuations
The United States plans to evacuate Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been held in quarantine at a Japanese port since early February, the US embassy said Saturday.

Washington plans to 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 following their arrival in the US.

There are some 400 Americans aboard the cruise ship.

Everyone will get a checkup before being allowed on the chartered flight, and those who show symptoms of sickness will not be permitted to board the plane, the embassy said.

Earlier in the week Japan refused an Israeli request to allow its passengers to leave the ship. It was not immediately clear whether Tokyo’s position on the matter had changed. The Ynet news site reported that a Japanese government official had said other countries interested in extracting their citizens could now make a request to do so.

Yoni Levi, whose mother and sister are on the ship, told the Ynet news site that the American announcement “intensifies our feelings… that the quarantine is irrelevant, useless and dangerous. We hope the American action will promote the release of the Israelis to quarantine in Israel.”

Some 200 people have been diagnosed with the virus out of 3,700 people on board the ship. Those diagnosed with the virus have been taken off the boat, along with some people suffering other health conditions requiring medical attention.

Ten of those hospitalized are now in serious condition, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said on Friday.

According to a letter obtained by the paper, Congressman have urged US government officials to take action, citing reports that the quarantine “relies heavily on self-reporting with limited access to diagnostic tools as well as flawed approaches to isolation among passengers.”

The Diamond Princess has been quarantined off Japan since early February after it emerged a former passenger who got off the boat in Hong Kong had tested positive for the virus.

The quarantine is due to end on February 19 and those on the ship have been mostly confined to their cabins and asked to wear masks and keep their distance from other passengers during brief outings on open deck.

Crew on board have expressed concern that their conditions — including shared cabins, bathrooms and workspaces — put them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

Japan on Friday began allowing elderly passengers who test negative for the coronavirus to leave the ship and finish their isolation in government-designated lodging. The government gave passengers aged 80 or older in poor health or confined to windowless inner cabins on the Diamond Princess the chance to move from the ship to accommodation on land.

A government official said 11 people had left, but declined to say whether more would depart or offer further details.

It is believed there are 15 Israelis on board the Diamond Princess. The passengers have taken to Israeli media in recent days to plead with the government to secure their release from the liner.

The Foreign Ministry asked Japan on Wednesday to weigh “other quarantine possibilities.” But Japan’s Deputy Ambassador to Israel Kazuhiko Nakamura told Army Radio the Israelis would not be allowed off the vessel for the time being.

“Release of the Israelis on the ship will be done only after the quarantine period ends,” Nakamura said. Japan will take the Israeli request into consideration, he said, but a final decision will be made by the Japanese health authorities.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz expressed understanding of Tokyo’s position.

“Japan’s desire to ensure the prevention of [the spread of] infection is shared by Israel,” Katz told Army Radio.

An 80-year-old Chinese tourist has died from the new coronavirus in France, the first death confirmed outside of Asia, French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said on Saturday.

Buzyn said she had been told about the death of the patient — in a hospital in Paris since late January — late on Friday, adding that his condition “had deteriorated rapidly” after several days in critical condition.
Six people with the virus remain hospitalized in France, Buzyn said, adding that none were seriously ill.

One of them was the dead Chinese tourist’s 50-year-old daughter and the rest were British nationals who were infected by a compatriot at a French ski resort.

Three deaths from the virus have so far been recorded outside mainland China — in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.

The scale of the epidemic ballooned this week after officials in the Chinese province of Hubei — the epicenter of the outbreak — changed their criteria for counting cases, adding thousands of new patients to the tally.

Some 56 million people in Hubei and its capital Wuhan are now living under quarantine, virtually sealed off from the rest of the country in an effort to contain the virus.

Away from China, almost 600 cases have been confirmed — roughly 35 of which have been reported in the European Union.

There are believed to be four French nationals on the Diamond Princess, where all those on board are mostly confined to their cabins and required to wear masks and keep away from others during brief outings on deck.

“We are following the international situation very closely,” Buzyn said.

“We need to prepare our health system to deal with a possible pandemic and therefore the circulation of the virus on national territory.”