BEIJING — The death toll from a new flu-like coronavirus in China rose to nine on Wednesday with at least 440 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said as authorities stepped up efforts to control the outbreak by discouraging public gatherings in Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated.
On Tuesday, a case of the disease was confirmed in a U.S. patient, federal health officials said.
Another 2,197 people who came into close contact with infected people in China have been isolated, with 765 so far released from observation, National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin told reporters, adding that there was already evidence that the virus was being spread through “respiratory transmission.”
“Recently there has been a big change in the number of cases, which is related to our deepening our understanding of the disease, improving diagnostic methods and optimizing the distribution of diagnostic kits,” Li said.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump said Wednesday the virus has been “handled very well” in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in U.S. said it will begin screening passengers for the virus at two more airports: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and O’Hare in Chicago. The CDC started screening airplane passengers from the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Friday for signs of the respiratory illness in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Now, all passengers whose flights originate in Wuhan will be rerouted to one of those five airports, it said.
Wearing a black face mask, a Connecticut man travelling to New York from Wuhan airport told NBC News Wednesday he was slightly nervous heading back. “I am not sure what to anticipate in New York — it may take a long time to come out,” Lawrence Chen said, waiting in line with other face mask-clad passengers to check in for their U.S.-bound flight.
He said he is taking basic precautions to not get sick like wearing a mask and washing his hands. “That’s all I can do,” Chen added.
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A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia, on Wednesday.Tatan Syuflana / AP
As China vowed to tighten containment measures in hospitals, the World Health Organization (WHO) was due to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak of the new coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency.
The virus, thought to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province at the end of last year, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Macau, the Chinese-ruled gambling hub, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Health officials in Hong Kong are also looking into a suspected case there.
The Chinese government has been providing daily updates on the number of cases in a bid to head off public panic, as millions of people prepare to travel domestically and abroad for the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations starting this week.
“At present, during the Lunar New Year, the rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control,” Li warned, noting that the mutation of the virus could also allow the outbreak to spread further.
Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said on Wednesday he was advising company employees not to visit China over the coming Lunar New Year holiday, amid concerns over the virus.
Fears of a pandemic similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that started in China and killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003 have roiled global markets, with aviation and luxury goods stocks hit particularly hard and the Chinese yuan tumbling.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases of the coronavirus would appear as China stepped up monitoring.
Li said there was as yet no evidence of “super-spreaders” capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak.
Symptoms in patients who contract the new virus include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. The viral infection can cause pneumonia and be passed from person to person.
Though the origin of the virus has yet to be identified, WHO said the primary source was probably animal. Chinese officials have linked the outbreak to Wuhan’s seafood market.
On Wednesday, the market was locked down, cleared out and placed under police guard.
Federal health officials said strict control measures will be implemented across Wuhan, including increased screening at train and bus stations.
Live animals, including poultry, will also not be allowed into the city, they said.
China’s state newspaper, People’s Daily, reported Wednesday that Hubei province plans to request emergency support from the federal government that would include 40 million medical masks, five million sets of protective clothing and 5000 sets of infrared thermometers.
Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing, Yuliya Talmazan from London.