Chinese authorities rapidly expanded a mammoth quarantine effort aimed at containing a deadly contagion on Friday to 13 cities and a staggering 41-million people, as nervous residents were checked for fevers and the death toll climbed to 26.
READ: Virus epicenter shut-off
While the World Health Organization held off on declaring a global emergency despite confirmed cases in half a dozen other countries, China expanded its lockdown to cover an area with a total population greater than Canada’s.
READ: WHO says no global crisis yet; Duque piqued
A range of Lunar New Year festivities has been canceled, while temporary closures of Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai’s Disneyland and a section of the Great Wall were announced to prevent the disease from spreading further.
The previously unknown virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
The WHO said China faced a national emergency but stopped short of making a declaration that would have prompted greater global cooperation, including possible trade and travel restrictions.
The outbreak emerged in late December in Wuhan, an industrial and transport hub of 11-million people in China’s center, spreading to several other countries including the United States.
China is in the midst of its Lunar New Year holiday, a typically joyous time of family gatherings and public festivities.
But on Friday, Wuhan was a ghost town, its streets deserted and stores shuttered.
Hospitals bustled with worried patients being screened by staff wearing full-body protective suits.
At a temperature-check station, a medical staffer in a bodysuit, face mask, and goggles took a thermometer from a middle-aged woman, pausing to examine the reading before quickly turning back to the patient.
“Have you registered? Then go and see the doctor,” the staffer said.
One 35-year-old man surnamed Li voiced the fears of many.
“I have a fever and cough, so I’m worried that I’m infected,” he said. “I don’t know the results yet.”
With hundreds of millions of people on the move across China for the holiday, the government has halted all travel out of Wuhan, shut down its public transport and told residents to stay home. Deepening the isolation, there were few flights available to the city.
“This year we have a very scary Chinese New Year. People are not going outside because of the virus,” said a taxi driver in the city, who asked not to be named.
But said a prolonged shutdown should not pose food-shortage problems because many Chinese had stocked up for the holiday.
Besides Wuhan, 12 other smaller cities nearby have battened down the hatches, with most of them going public on Friday with various measures ranging from closing public venues and restricting large gatherings to halting public transportation and asking citizens not to leave their cities.
Several of the cities have populations numbering several million, led by Huanggang, which has 7.5 million.
The pathogen—2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)—has caused many outlets in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities to sell out their stocks of face masks.
As reports surfaced of bed shortages in Wuhan hospitals, state media said authorities were rushing to build a new facility devoted to the outbreak in a mind-blowing 10 days.
The Wuhan hospital is targeted to be ready by Feb. 3. Dozens of excavators and trucks were filmed working on the site by state television.
To discourage nationwide travel, the government has said all tickets for rail, air, road, or water transport could be exchanged for a refund.
On Friday, staff in full-body protective suits were seen checking the temperatures of people entering a subway station in Beijing.
Thermal cameras scanned passengers arriving at Beijing’s West Railway Station.
Chinese authorities said the number of cases leaped overnight to more than 800, with 177 in serious condition. There were another 1,072 suspected cases.
Officials also said that a virus patient died in Heilongjiang province in China’s far northeast, the second death outside the Wuhan epicenter.
Beijing has been praised for its response in contrast to SARS, when it took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.
Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, asked China’s people to forego New Year gatherings this year and confine themselves at home until the all-clear.
“If we all work as one, we can contain the virus in Wuhan and add no more cases exported from Wuhan, so as to stem the virus nationwide,” Gao told state TV.
Beijing has cancelled popular New Year public events at temples in the capital, the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday, and Shanghai Disneyland said it also will shut down for an indefinite period from Saturday to protect visitors and staff.
The pathogen, known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), has caused nationwide alarm, with surgical masks selling out at many outlets in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities.
In the latest, the city of Huangshi, which has more than 2 million people, announced Friday it had halted public transport and closed a major bridge.
Wuhan’s straitjacket tightened further Friday, with the city limiting the number of taxis allowed on roads. Leading Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing also said it was temporarily suspending service in Wuhan.
The respiratory virus emerged from a seafood and animal market in Wuhan in late December. It has spread to several other countries, including the United States.
The National Health Commission said that of the 830 cases in China so far, 177 are in serious condition. Authorities were also examining 1,072 suspected cases.
“This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters after two days of talks in Geneva.
READ: Global health emergency eyed over outbreak
Tedros hailed China’s preventive measures but expressed hope that they would be “short in their duration.”
Beijing has been praised for its response, in contrast to SARS, when it took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.
China also on Friday confirmed the second virus death outside the Wuhan epicenter, saying a patient died in Heilongjiang province, 2,000 kilometers northeast of Wuhan.
Authorities have said most fatalities were aged between 48 and 89 and already suffered from pre-existing health conditions.
READ: Major SARS-like outbreak feared amid third death outside of ChinaREAD: Public warned: No cure for n-CoV; only hygieneREAD: From bats to humans? Analysis shows possible sources of virus
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