As the death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 170, numerous countries, airlines and travel groups began scrambling to cut service to China, extract citizens or screen individuals who had been there recently in a desperate effort to contain the contagious illness.
The new virus, centered in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, another type of coronavirus.
The latest figures released by China on Thursday covered the past 24 hours and represented an increase of 38 deaths and 1,737 cases for a total of 7,711. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province, where Wuhan is situated, and one was in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Chinese officials have closed transport within and out of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, including buses, subways, trains and the international airport.
The World Health Organization reconvened experts on Thursday in Geneva to assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.
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The WHO emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, upon returning from Beijing, said China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge” posed by the outbreak.
He estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2% but said the figure was very preliminary. With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate, and it’s likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed.
In comparison, the SARS virus killed about 10% of people it infected. The new virus is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.
As the crisis mounted, Scandinavian Airlines said it was halting all flights to Beijing and Shanghai from Feb. 9 while Iberian airlines announced it was halting three return flights a week between Madrid and Shanghai beginning Friday.
Israel’s El Al and Korean Air also joined the growing list of airlines – British Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Swiss, Air France and KLM – that were suspending or reducing service to China.
An A380 passenger plane left Portugal to China on Thursday to pick up around 350 Europeans who want to leave as the virus spreads. The plane was stopping in Paris to pick up additional medical personnel for what Captain Antonios Efthymiou called a “humanitarian mission.”
New Zealand, Australia, India, Singapore and other countries were also trying to get out their citizens, along with Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned travelers to avoid all nonessential trips to China. The U.S. State Department has requested that all non-essential U.S. government personnel defer travel to China.
The U.S., which evacuated 195 Americans from Wuhan on Wednesday, said additional flights were being planned next week to bring our more U.S. citizens.
Those already extracted were being tested and monitored at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California where they will be monitored twice a day for at least three days for fever and other symptoms.
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“There’s a lot about this virus that we don’t know. But, something that we also have to keep in mind is that these folks need to come home. … The risk to the public remains low and we aim to keep it that way,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer.
Officials said the passengers who don’t exhibit symptoms in those first 72 hours will be able to travel to their home states and on to their families or residences. They will, however, continue to be monitored for a maximum of 14 days.
“When they leave and go to their home states, at least twice a day someone from public health will contact them and say, ‘Do you have any of these symptoms?’ ‘Tell me your temperature?’ or ‘I’m going to take your temperature,'” Braden said.
In Russia, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree to close the country’s border with China, Russia’s Sputnik News reported.
Meanwhile, Italian authorities were keeping about 6,000 passengers on a cruise ship for screening after a 54-year-old passenger from Macao came down with flu-like symptoms. Passengers of the Costa Smeralda, which was docked north of Rome, were being kept on board Thursday pending checks to determine the type of virus.
Contributing: Colin Atagi, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Associated Press