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Coronavirus deaths climb as China corrals sick in quarantine facilities in outbreak epicenter

A strain of the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, as viewed through an electron microscope. (Photo courtesy of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

BEIJING - China pushed ahead Sunday with emergency measures to isolate coronavirus patients in specialized facilities at the disease-ravaged epicenter, Wuhan, as the number of patient deaths surged past the 774 killed by the SARS outbreak that straddled 2002 and 2003.

On Monday morning local time, The country's National Health Commission reported that more than 90 people died Saturday in the two-month epidemic - the highest daily toll to date - as worldwide coronavirus fatalities reached more than 900. Cases have been heavily concentrated in Wuhan and surrounding areas of Hubei province, which has been locked down for two weeks in an attempt to contain the virus.

As infections overwhelm the afflicted province, the rest of China might be seeing the effects of strict quarantine measures, Chinese health officials said Sunday. In all parts of China outside Hubei, the daily number of new infections dropped from nearly 900 on Feb. 3 to 509 on Saturday, the officials said.

World Health Organization officials also said they had seen the number of new cases taper in recent days. "That's good news and may reflect the impact of the control measures put in place," Michael Ryan, head of the WHO's health emergencies program, told reporters Saturday. But he added that many patients have not yet been tested and that it remains far too early to make predictions about the number of infections.

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An international team of experts led by the WHO departed for China early Monday morning to investigate the outbreak, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Medical experts say available data show that the disease - officially named "novel coronavirus pneumonia," or NCP, by Chinese health officials on Saturday - is much more contagious than severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, but the probability of death for those infected is much lower.

The Chinese Ambassador to the United States pushed back Sunday on the suggestion by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that the coronavirus may have come from China's biological weapons program. Appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Ambassador Cui Tiankai acknowledged that much about the virus remains unknown, but he said spreading unsubstantiated theories could cause panic and amplify racial discrimination.

"It's very harmful, it's very dangerous, to stir up suspicion, rumors and spread them among the people," Cui said. He said other people have suggested that the virus came from a military lab in the United States. "How can we believe all these crazy things?" he asked.

Reports of cases around the world continue to tick up. The number of confirmed infections onboard the cruise liner Diamond Princess, which has been anchored and quarantined off the coast of Japan, rose Sunday to 70. Only the sick are able to disembark.

Some of the ship's passengers have posted updates on social media to share photos of the port, their cabins and the sudoku puzzles they are doing to pass the time. Sarah Arana, whose Facebook page says she lives in Los Angeles, wrote that the ship has been leaving periodically and returning to port to maintain operations. Supplies have been delivered, and passengers were given thermometers to take their own temperatures several times per day, she said.

"We are sharing jokes, laughing and making the best of this situation," Arana wrote. "Meanwhile, we are still communicating with several that tested positive in their new quarantine locations. They report the Japanese are taking this very seriously, they are isolated but well cared for and they are all feeling fine."

One of the evacuees was Rebecca Frasure, her husband told The Washington Post by phone Sunday from the ship in Yokohama. The couple from Forest Grove, Oregon, had traveled to Disneyland in Hong Kong, Vietnam and other destinations before Japanese medical staff boarded the ship with thermometers. Rebecca Frasure, 35, tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Kent Frasure said, and was taken by ambulance to a hospital north of Tokyo.

"She is doing pretty good, no fever or cough," said Kent Frasure, 42. Symptoms can take as many as 14 days after exposure to appear. Frasure said his wife was being evaluated in a stripped-down contagious-disease ward with just a bed, TV and calendar on the wall. Doctors step through a sealed antechamber to see her.

It's an alien experience for her, said Frasure, a technician at Intel. She does not speak Japanese, and the physicians use electronic devices to translate confusing medical jargon. But Rebecca, who works for a health-care company, has WiFi and keeps in contact with her family on FaceTime, he said.

The quarantine on the ship, meanwhile, has become claustrophobic. Frasure had a fever earlier, so he has been restricted to his suite. His Nintendo Switch and reporters calling him for comment help pass the time, he said. The ship captain periodically issues updates over a loudspeaker, but media reports often clue in the passengers before then.

"Usually we know what's happening before it's announced," he said.

The Royal Caribbean cruise liner Anthem of the Seas had its own coronavirus scare last week when two dozen people aboard were screened after the ship docked in Bayonne, New Jersey. State officials said Saturday that four people who had been taken to the hospital from the ship tested negative for the virus and were discharged.

Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, urged calm as the city-state reported a spike in the number of cases to a total of 40 and raised its alert level. New cases were also reported in Germany and South Korea.

In Hong Kong, where grocery stores have been emptied as worried residents stock up on supplies, the number of cases rose by three to a total of 29 Sunday. The city's health authorities said tests for all 3,600 crew and passengers quarantined for the past four days on the cruise ship World Dream came back negative and everyone aboard was released Sunday afternoon.

China faces a crucial test beginning Monday as laborers from across the country trickle back to work in major cities that have been effectively emptied and shut down since the Lunar New Year in late January.

Authorities concerned about another spike in infections have tried to delay the return to work. Shanghai is asking companies to dissuade nonlocal employees from returning for several more weeks. In Shenzhen, the iPhone assembler Foxconn has told employees that work is suspended until further notice. Officials in cities ranging from Xian in the north to Tianjin on the east coast have warned travelers from other parts of China that they would be immediately quarantined upon their return.

In a sign that governments are still seeking to prolong closures, state media reported Sunday that the populous Hebei province surrounding Beijing would join other major jurisdictions in keeping schools closed until March 1 at the earliest.

In Wujan, the heart of the epidemic, the situation remains dire.

Officials are rushing to transfer patients into three quarantine facilities with 4,000 beds to alleviate a severe shortage of space at the city's overwhelmed hospitals. Hotels and university dorms are being requisitioned and converted into spaces for "centralized quarantine" for patients showing symptoms.

Leishenshan, a second makeshift hospital with 1,600 beds, began accepting patients with severe symptoms beginning Saturday night, state media reported.

Wuhan officials initially asked all but the most ill patients to stay home, but on Saturday Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the leader of a central government response group, ordered local officials to "take in everyone that should be taken in" to newly established facilities to quarantine confirmed cases.

Risks remain inside medical facilities. Doctors from Wuhan's Zhongnan Hospital reported that 41% of coronavirus patients at their hospital were infected inside the hospital by other patients and medical staff. The doctors announced their findings in a paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association on Friday.

At the Wuhan Mental and Health Center, 50 patients and 30 medical staffers were infected due to a lack of caution and protective gear, a doctor, Zhao Ping, told China Newsweek magazine.

Hubei deputy governor Cao Guangjing said Saturday that hospitals in the province had 80% of the masks they required.

Two prominent incidents have become symbols for China's tight grip on information and simmering tensions among its citizens unhappy with Beijing's response to the virus.

Chen Qiushi, an attorney and citizen journalist, slipped into the Wuhan hot zone on Jan. 24 to interview citizens about the outbreak, The Post reported, garnering worldwide attention for the city of 11 million where little, if any, information has slipped through government censors.

Chen's family and friends said this weekend that he was forcibly detained in an undisclosed location.

Details of his disappearance emerged days after Li Wenliang, the "whistleblower doctor" considered the first to sound the alarm about the disease, died after contracting the virus in Wuhan.

Millions of Chinese tried to surge past censors by amplifying the social media hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech, and photos of Li flooded the Internet as a digital rallying cry.

A month after patients began flooding into hospitals, many increasingly sick and desperate households say they still cannot secure care and fear time is running out.

Li Lina, a resident in the Hanyang district, beat a gong and shrieked from her high-rise balcony this weekend to beg for help for herself and her stricken mother holed up at home. A neighbor filmed her cries and uploaded it to the Internet, where it went viral.

Reached by telephone on Sunday, Li explained that her mother's condition was steadily worsening but she has not been able to secure a hospital bed since Jan. 29, because city regulations allow only confirmed coronavirus patients to get spots.

Li was finally able to administer a nucleic acid test on Friday; the result returned positive for coronavirus but ambiguous. Doctors gave her mother a second exam, and Li is waiting for the results to arrive Tuesday.

Li's mother is too feeble to speak. She communicates by ringing a bell.

"I don't even know if she'll hold out that long," Li said. "I feel helpless. I can't watch my mother die."

This article was written by Gerry Shih, Alex Horton and Marisa Iati, reporters for The Washington Post.

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