Wed. 9:24 a.m.: Virus updates: S. Korea hunts sick beds; rising toll in Iran, Italy
BANGKOK (AP) — South Korea struggled to find enough hospital beds for sick patients, Iran and Italy grappled with rising deaths, and Saudi Arabia banned citizens from performing the pilgrimage to Mecca as the coronavirus that tormented China acquired firm footing elsewhere in the world.
As the number of new cases drops precipitously in China, attention has shifted to South Korea, Italy and Iran, countries with major coronavirus clusters that the World Health Organization says account for 80 percent of new cases outside China.
“People are afraid and uncertain. Fear is a natural human response to any threat,” said WHO’s leader, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “But as we get more data, we are understanding this virus and the disease it causes more and more.”
WHO said about 3.4 percent of people infected with the virus COVID-19 globally have died, making it more fatal than the common flu. A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine assessing data from more than 30 Chinese provinces estimated the death rate was 1.4 percent.
Death rates in outbreaks are likely to skew higher early on as health officials focus on finding severe and fatal cases, missing most milder cases. WHO says the majority of people with the new coronavirus experience only mild symptoms and do not require any treatment.
In Daegu, the South Korean city at the center of that country’s outbreak, a shortage of hospital space meant about 2,300 patients were being cared for in other facilities while they awaited a hospital bed. Attending a meeting on quarantine strategies in Daegu, Prime Minister Chung Se-Kyun assured his country, saying “We can absolutely overcome this situation. … We will win the war against COVID-19.”
South Korea reported 435 new infections today, far smaller than its high of 851 a day earlier. A total of 5,621 people in South Korea have contracted the virus and 32 have died.
Iran reported 92 deaths among its 2,922 confirmed cases, the most of any country except China. Among the ill are members of the government, and the country cancelled Friday prayers for the second week in a row.
The deaths in Italy rose to 79. The outbreak in Italy has been concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy, but fear over the virus’ spread led even the Vatican to insist Pope Francis was not infected.
The pontiff became ill last week, but the Vatican said Francis only had a cold.
The expanding problem in Europe and beyond has led some governments to try to control supplies of necessities. The governments of the Czech Republic, Russia and Germany announced bans today covering various protective gear like masks.
India, meantime, tightened the export of 26 key drug ingredients used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, a potentially disruptive move taken as its caseload rose to 28 today from an earlier tally of just 5.
China reported 119 new cases today, all but five in the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan. In a sign of the shifting threat, Beijing’s health commissioner said two new cases in the Chinese capital were apparently infected abroad, in Iran and Italy.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, was expected to gradually shut down its hastily built temporary hospitals, where thousands of beds were empty.
“We believe this decline is real,” WHO outbreak expert Maria Van Kerkhove said of China. The country has reported 80,270 infections and 2,981 fatalities. It has about 85 percent of the world’s cases and 95 percent of deaths from the COVID-19 illness.
Doctors working in Wuhan told reporters by video conference today that hospitals there have an increasing number of empty beds but cautioned there is always the possibility of a new spike of infections.
“The war is not over,” said Dr. Cao Bin, who specializes in respiratory research. “The disease is not only a Wuhan disease, and not only a China disease, but also a global disease.”
The outbreak was blamed for market instability around the globe. Asian stock markets were mixed today after Wall Street continued to zigzag, despite an interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Businesses of all types were experiencing pain as travel and tourism were spurned and worried consumers changed their habits.
“People are afraid to touch anything or take anything from us,” said Maedeh Jahangiri, a perfume seller at an upscale mall in the Iranian capital of Tehran. “Everyone is at a loss.”
Here are the latest updates today on the virus outbreak (all times local):
Israeli health authorities have ordered everyone from a regional high school and dozens of soccer fans into home quarantine after their possible exposure to a teenage boy who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry said it closed Brenner High School and told all students, teachers and staff members to quarantine at home until March 11. Some 1,000 students, including the boy, attend the school in central Israel.
The ministry also instructed dozens of people who sat in the vicinity of the boy at a Feb. 24 soccer game in Tel Avid to isolate themselves at home until March 8.
The boy apparently became infected while working at a toy store whose owner tested positive for the virus after returning from Italy.
Israel has confirmed 15 coronavirus cases in all and ordered several thousand people into home quarantine after possible exposure.
Italian media say the Italian government has ordered schools nationwide to close for the next two weeks to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but the country’s education minister says a final decision on the closure not yet been confirmed.
State-run RAI, the ANSA and LaPresse news agencies reported today that Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte had agreed on the closure during a cabinet meeting. But Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told reporters that nothing is final yet.
Italy has seen its virus caseload explode since the first positive test was registered in northern Lombardy on Feb. 19. Since then, more than 2,500 people in Italy have tested positive, and 79 have died. Italy is the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak.
In the early days of the outbreak, officials closed schools in Lombardy and Veneto, the two hardest-hit regions. Over the weekend, they closed schools in Emilia Romagna.
The Baltic nation of Lithuania has canceled most of the indoor events planned for the 30th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union because of the coronavirus.
The speaker of the Lithuanian parliament said today authorities decided to call off the events since many of the people expected to attend the events are elderly and at higher risk of infection.
Parliament speaker Viktoras Pranckietis says most foreign leaders also cancelled scheduled trips to attend the anniversary events in Lithuania. He didn’t name names, but invitations had been sent to lawmakers in Ukraine, Poland and neighboring Baltic states Latvia and Estonia.
There will be several events in downtown Vilnius, including a flag-raising on Independence Square on March 11 and an evening concert.
Lithuania so far only has reported one virus case.
The Louvre Museum in France is open again after employees worried about catching the coronavirus agreed to return to work.
The Paris museum where Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting hangs had been closed since Sunday while employees fearing infection stayed off the job.
But Louvre staff members voted overwhelmingly today to resume work and the Louvre opened its doors in the afternoon.
Management presented a raft of new anti-virus measures to try to coax employees back to work. Among them: wider distributions of disinfectant gels and more frequent staff rotations so employees have time to wash their hands.
The London Book Fair has been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The fair, which usually draws more than 25,000 writers, agents and publishers to one of the international publishing industry’s biggest gatherings, had been due to take place at London’s Olympia conference venue March 10-12.
Organizer Reed Exhibitions said today that it had decided “with reluctance” to cancel the event.
The decision came after several major publishers, including HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, pulled out of the fair because of the disease, citing the risk to staff.
Also today, organizers announced that Asia’s biggest casino industry trade show has been postponed because of the virus.
Global Gaming Expo Asia, originally scheduled to be held on May 19-21 in Macao, will be held at the end of July.
More than 13,000 people attended last year’s expo, jointly organized by the American Gaming Association and Reed Exhibitions.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the social network is stepping up its efforts to combat virus-related misinformation by giving the World Health Organization free advertising.
Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook account that the company is working with national health ministries and global organizations like the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF to get out timely and accurate information on the virus.
Zuckerberg said Facebook will also give “support and millions more in ad credits” to other unspecified organizations.
Facebook has previously taken other measures to fight virus hoaxes and misinformation, including removing false claims and conspiracy theories and showing users a pop-up directing them to the World Health Organization or their local health authority for the latest information.
A Beijing-based intensive care doctor now working in Wuhan – the city at the epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak – says designated hospitals in the city are seeing an increasing number of empty beds after a large number of virus patients were discharged.
Du Bin added, however, that there’s always the possibility of another spike in new cases.
Du said today that a major cause of deaths in younger patients may have been the prolonged application of certain high-dosage treatments that ended up causing more harm than good.
Cao Bin, a doctor specializing in respiratory research who is also currently in Wuhan, told reporters, “The war is not over.”
Cao said Chinese researchers have led initial clinical trials of two antiviral drugs and will soon share the results of the trials with the World Health Organization.
Germany has joined several other countries in banning the export of medical equipment such as respiratory masks, gloves and protective suits in most cases.
Germany, like other nations, has faced a shortage of such equipment as concerns over the widening coronavirus outbreak have mounted. In Germany itself, 240 infections have been confirmed so far.
Germany’s interior ministry said today that exemptions from the export ban will be allowed only under strict conditions, such as for “concerted international aid actions.”
Russia’s government today banned the export of masks, respirators and other protective gear along with anti-virus medicines until June 1. It also noted that the ban doesn’t cover humanitarian aid.
The Ministry for Industry and Trade said the move is intended to prevent an “artificial deficit” of protective goods, which are being increasingly sold abroad as global demand has soared.
The Czech government also said it is banning exports of respirators and will start regulating their sale at home, saying it needs them for health workers and others. The Czech Republic has five confirmed cases of the new virus.
The Louvre did not open as scheduled today, and several hundred people who lined up outside were greeted by a sign saying, “Due to exceptional circumstances, the museum will open later.”
The world’s most visited museum has been closed since Sunday because of workers’ worries about the potential spread of the new virus.
Management laid out a series of new measures to prevent contamination, trying to coax the staffers back to work.
The proposed steps include the wider distribution of disinfectant gels and more frequent rotations so staff can wash their hands.
Most of the Paris landmark’s 9.6 million visitors last year came from other countries, and the museum that houses the Mona Lisa and other treasures welcomes tens of thousands of people every day.
The European Central Bank says it’s restricting all nonessential travel by members of its executive board and employees through April 20 as a precautionary measure amid the global coronavirus outbreak.
The central bank for the 19-nation eurozone said today that visits to its Frankfurt headquarters and its public visitor center are being suspended for the same period. It is postponing or cancelling conferences that were due to be held at the bank – but says that news conferences after regular policy-setting meetings of its governing council are unaffected, and that the next one will go ahead March 12 as planned.
The ECB stressed that the move was a precaution and there have been no recorded cases yet of bank employees being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
India says its number of confirmed coronavirus cases has jumped to 28, up from just five.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan says an earlier COVID-19 patient who had traveled to Italy led to the confirmation of six other infections. Another cluster of cases that emerged centered around a large group of Italian tourists who had entered India on Feb. 21.
India also announced today that it has imposed universal screening of all passengers on international flights.
Meanwhile, South Korea reported 435 new cases, pushing its total to 5,621 — the second-highest total after China.