Jump in virus cases outside China alarming

Jump in virus cases outside China alarming

Cases more than double to 433 in South Korea as links to church investigated

A resident wears a makeshift protective face shield at a residential compound in Wuhan on Friday. (Reuters Photo)
A resident wears a makeshift protective face shield at a residential compound in Wuhan on Friday. (Reuters Photo)

Iran, Italy and South Korea all reported additional deaths and a sharp rise in coronavirus cases on Saturday, stoking further alarm about the jump in infections outside China.

Iran had a fifth death and 10 more cases, bringing the total to 28, state television reported. The World Health Organization said the situation in Iran was “very worrisome” because of the lack of any direct link to China. It underlined the agency’s concern that the window of opportunity to prevent a global pandemic is closing.

Two deaths in Italy, meanwhile, led to the lockdown of a dozen towns in the Lombardy region in the north of the country.

China reported that the number of cases there had risen to to 76,288 on Saturday, with 2,345 fatalities (see updated virus map).

But South Korea was where the public was most on edge, as authorities reported 229 fresh cases, bringing the total to 433, and a third patient died. Nearly half of the new cases in South Korea were linked to members of a religious sect.

Covid-19 infections were reported in nearly all of the patients in a psychiatric ward at a hospital complex where local reports said a funeral attended by members of the Shincheonji church.

The funeral of the brother of the Shincheonji’s leader took place earlier this month in Cheongdo, and health officials are examining ties between the church and the hospital.

Shincheonji, formally known as Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, said on its website that it is trying to list attendees of the funeral and denied its Chinese followers were part of the crowd at the ceremony.

In Italy, attention was focused on the Lombardy and Veneto regions, where the number of infected people rose to 30 in about 24 hours, according to local media. In Lombardy, a dozen towns in the Lodi area were locked down on Saturday after the virus claimed a second victim.

More than 50,000 people were ordered to stay at home by the regional government, according to newswire Ansa. Businesses and restaurants closed and soccer games and Catholic masses were cancelled.

In Japan, fallout continued over the handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where hundreds developed Covid-19, by its operator and Japanese authorities. Heath Minister Katsunobu Kato said 23 passengers who disembarked from the ship in Yokohama had not been tested during the quarantine period.

Kentaro Iwata, a professor at Kobe University Hospital who said he boarded the cruise ship, criticised bureaucrats’ handling of the quarantine, saying infected and uninfected people were able to mix freely on the ship.

Some 100 passengers who were in close contact with infected people on board began disembarking from the ship on Saturday, local media said. They will be quarantined for two weeks near Tokyo.

They included the last batch of Japanese passengers to leave the ship while some foreign passengers were still waiting on board for chartered aircraft to be sent by their governments. Around 970 passengers disembarked earlier this week.

With the disembarkation, a 14-day quarantine is expected to start for more than 1,000 crew still on board as many did not undergo quarantine because they were needed to keep the ship running.

They were preparing food and delivering meals to cabins, leading some critics to charge they were inadvertently spreading the virus throughout the ship, which has seen more than 600 cases.

Kato also confirmed that a Japanese hospital on Saturday used the anti-influenza medication Avigan, also known as Favipiravir, to treat a patient infected with the virus.

He said the government would push for the use of such medicines if they were confirmed to be effective.

Indonesia is preparing to evacuate 74 of its citizens from the Diamond Princess, according to a government statement. Four of the 78 Indonesians aboard the vessel have tested positive for the virus.

All passengers on the cruise ship Westerdam, which was turned away from five ports before docking in Cambodia, have tested negative for the coronavirus, the newspaper USA Today reported. That included an 83-year-old American woman who initially tested positive in Malaysia.

The woman “may have had a respiratory illness, but if she did, it was not Covid-19”, said Richard Quartarone, a spokesman for the US Centers for Disease Control.

In Hong Kong, a trade group for companies that build, trade and finance aircraft is cancelling its annual Asia-based convention scheduled for May in the city.

“Holding an event in the region anytime in the near future did not seem prudent,” Gerry Butler, president of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading, wrote in a note to the group’s 5,000 members.

China is bringing in seven cruise ships to house medical workers in Wuhan, state media said on Saturday, at a time when such ships are under scrutiny after the Diamond Princess fiasco.

The first of the ships, the Blue Whale, arrived in Wuhan on Friday from Yichang, a nearby city down the Yangtze River. The seven ships will provide 1,469 beds in total.

Tens of thousands of medical workers have been brought into central Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, from across China to help contain the outbreak.

The ships are normally used for river cruises in the Three Gorges scenic area. They are expected to provide safe dining and living conditions for medics to keep them refreshed as they fight the epidemic, state media said.

The outbreak in China has not yet reached its peak, state television quoted a top decision-making body of the ruling Communist Party as saying.

“A turning point in the development of the national epidemic situation has not yet arrived,” said a statement issued after the meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping.

“The epidemic prevention and control situation in Hubei province and Wuhan city remains severe and complex.”

The impact of the outbreak on China’s economy is obvious, but the economy’s long-term improving momentum will not change, the statement said.

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