Hong Kong and Taiwan restrict travel from mainland China amid mounting public fears
The numbers of people in mainland China infected with the coronavirus once again rose sharply, with 65 new deaths and 3,887 cases reported on Tuesday alone, authorities said Wednesday morning.
This brings the total number of confirmed cases in China to 24,324, with more than 3,000 in critical condition. The increase once again represented the biggest jump since the National Health Commission began releasing statistics and continues the trend of larger increases in cases confirmed every day of the outbreak. China has reported 490 deaths, and two others have succumbed from the illness, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
In the United States, Wisconsin announced its first coronavirus case, the 12th in the United States, according to The Associated Press.
Health officials said the patient is an adult isolated at their home, but have yet to provide further details.
The patient reportedly had not been hospitalized. However, they had been evaluated and tested at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, according to Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Disease.
Westergaard said the patient had contact with a confirmed coronavirus case in China within the past two weeks.
"The risk to Wisconsin residents in general is extremely low," he added. Federal health officials began shipping coronavirus test kits Wednesday to more than 100 state labs across the United States. Individual states will start testing patient samples in the coming days to confirm the presence of the coronavirus.
In Asia, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for all everyone arriving from mainland China, including foreigners and Hong Kong residents.
The stringent measures, which will come into place on Feb. 8, come as the embattled Lam is facing growing dissent in her city and mounting pressure to totally shut Hong Kong's border with mainland China. Thousands of medical workers, including front line doctors and nurses, are on strike, hoping to pressure the government into more completely restricting the flow of people from mainland China as the number of infections there continue to spike.
There were no specifics given on how the quarantine would be enforced.
On Wednesday, the number of cases in Hong Kong rose to 21 from 18. All three new cases involved local transmission, what Lam said was a determining factor for these new measures.
"The next 14 days is a crucial period to stop the spread of disease in the community," Lam said. As the infections enter "another critical phase," Lam added, "the government needs to take more stringent measures."
Separately, the Hong Kong government will also shut cruise terminals in the city. On Wednesday morning, a cruise ship docked in Hong Kong - initially bound for Taiwan but turned away - with several suspected cases of infections among crew on board.
Lam described the measure on Wednesday as "very strict" and said her government believes there would be a "substantial drop" in cross-boundary travel. Implementing such a move is politically sensitive for Hong Kong, which likely needs Beijing's approval for such a measure despite having its own immigration system.
Medical workers in Hong Kong continued their strike, disrupting emergency services at government hospitals, a move that they hope will pressure the beleaguered government into completely shutting the border with mainland China.
"We feel so sorry for the patients," said Winne Yu, the head of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a pro-democracy union formed late last year in the wake of political unrest in the city. "But I have to emphasize again, this is the government's responsibility and the government's fault."
The union has also demanded that the government ensure a steady supply of surgical masks. Despite pledges from the government, a widespread shortage of masks - along with other protective items like alcohol-based hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap - has been reported throughout Hong Kong. According to the South China Morning Posts, tens of thousands waited in line overnight after a company said it would release supplies of masks.
In a statement, the medical workers union noted that "locally-infected cases are steadily increasing." Hong Kong now has 18 confirmed cases of the virus, and the three new confirmed cases involved patients who contracted the disease locally, and had not traveled to mainland China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has declined to meet representatives of the union.
Thousands of people continue to arrive from mainland China into Hong Kong, which has its own immigration system, despite the government's move to dramatically reduce the number of crossings between the two places.
"We are dangerously close to a massive community outbreak comparable to SARS," the statement said. "The members of the [union] are willing to risk their career and financial income to convince the government into closure of our border, and to put the lives of the citizens of Hong Kong at the highest priority. Yet, the government's refusal to listen to the voices of the people is deeply angering and heartbreaking to us."
It noted that more sectors could join the strike, raising the possibility of a broader general strike in Hong Kong. Before the outbreak, the Chinese territory had been grappling with eight months of deepening political unrest rooted in disaffection toward the Hong Kong government and fears that they answer to Beijing rather than the Hong Kong people. By: Tiffany Liang
Taiwan said Wednesday that it would suspend entry for all Chinese citizens who live on the mainland, starting from Thursday, declaring China to be an "epidemic zone."
Taiwan had already restricted many Chinese from virus-hit provinces, but this new restriction would expand that. All Taiwanese who have visited the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao will also be put under home quarantine for 14 days. Authorities say they will be monitoring the epidemic closely, and could adjust the designated "epidemic zone" and travel warning at any time, opening the door to the possibility of a wider travel ban on Hong Kong and Macao as well. Taiwan on Wednesday also raised a yellow travel alert for the two territories, urging citizens to avoid nonessential travel there.
The self-governing island has been working to differentiate itself from mainland China as the outbreak spreads, keen to avoid being lumped into travel bans affecting those from the mainland. Critics have accused Beijing meanwhile of politicizing their response to the crisis, particularly in the case of Taiwan, which is excluded from the World Health Organization over objections from China.
Li Lanjuan, a leading epidemiologist at China's National Health Commission, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV in an interview late on Tuesday that it would take up to six weeks to fully contain the coronavirus epidemic and see a drop in infections.
"There are also patient infections and local cases out there. Considering the 14-day incubation period, I think we can detect the new cases and get it [the epidemic] under control in another two to three fortnights," she said.
"After containing contagion sources, we will move the priority to the treatment of patients, to try our best to heal them, and keep the death rate as low as possible," Li added.
Chinese researchers meanwhile have found three existing drugs with fairly good inhibitory effects on the novel coronavirus at the cellular level, the government-owned Hubei Daily newspaper reported. The three drugs are Remdesivir, Chloroquine and Ritonavir, and they are now going through standard procedures before they can be used clinically.
The discovery was jointly made by researchers from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
The number of coronavirus cases in South Korea rose to 18 on Wednesday, with a rise in infections among those have not recently visited China.
In Japan, a senior member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympics and Paralympics said Wednesday that the spread of the new coronavirus could throw "cold water over the growing momentum of the 2020 games."
"I am seriously concerned," the director general and CEO of the organizing committee Toshiro Muto said at a meeting in the Japanese capital, according to Reuters. "I hope this will be resolved as soon as possible."
On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to work with the World Health Organization to ensure that Tokyo's Olympic Games are not disrupted by the outbreak of coronavirus, and said work was already underway to design testing kits for the virus.
Experts say there is no realistic chance of a vaccine being tested and approved for use before the games begin in late July. There are already 33 confirmed cases of the virus in Japan, after 10 people on board a cruise liner docked at the port of Yokohama just south of Tokyo tested positive and were taken to local hospitals on Wednesday.
But some experts hope that the advent of warmer weather could help dampen the spread of the pneumonia-like virus.
The Washington Post's Paul Schemm, David Crawshaw, Simon Denyer , Tiffany Liang and Lyric Li contributed to this report.
This article was written by Shibani Mahtani, a reporter for The Washington Post.