China virus death toll nears 1,400, six health workers among victims

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BEIJING, Feb 14, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – The death toll from China’s virus epidemic neared 1,400 on Friday with six medical workers among the victims, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain a deepening health crisis.

Nearly 64,000 people are now recorded as having fallen ill from the virus
in China, with officials revealing that 1,716 health workers had been
infected as of Tuesday.

The grim figure comes a week after an outpouring of grief and public anger
over the death of a whistleblowing doctor who had been reprimanded and
silenced by police after raising the alarm about the virus in December. The
scale of the epidemic swelled this week after authorities in central Hubei
province, the epicentre of the contagion, changed their criteria to count the
number of cases, adding thousands of new patients to their tally.

The health emergency in China has caused fears of more global contagion,
with more than two-dozen countries reporting hundreds of cases among them.
Three people have died outside mainland China.

The United States accused China of lacking transparency.

The majority of cases of infections among health workers was in Hubei’s
capital, Wuhan, where many have lacked proper masks and gear to protect
themselves in hospitals dealing with a deluge of patients.

Some 80,000 medical workers were involved in combatting the epidemic in
Wuhan, the city government said earlier this month.

After the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old
ophthalmologist in Wuhan, 10 academics circulated an open letter calling for
political reform and freedom of speech in the Communist-ruled country.

Under criticism over the handling of the crisis, China’s Communist Party
sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei, and replaced them with senior
cadres with security backgrounds.

– New count –

Authorities in Hubei province on Thursday started counting patients who
were “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging, in addition to those who
undergo lab tests.

The revision added nearly 15,000 patients to Hubei’s count in a single
day, with officials explaining that past cases were included. The first cases
emerged in December in Wuhan.

On Friday, Hubei’s health commission said another 116 people had died and
more than 4,800 new cases were reported. Of those cases, more than 3,000 were
“clinically diagnosed”.

The WHO said the numbers included cases going back weeks.

The sharp one-day increase “does not represent a significant change in the
trajectory of the outbreak,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health
emergencies programme.

The move will ensure patients get treated as early as possible, instead of
having to wait for laboratory tests, health officials said. “There have been
some backlogs in testing and this is also going to help in ensuring that
people get adequate care,” Ryan said.

The National Health Commission said the new criteria would only apply to
Hubei.

The commission reported five other deaths and 217 new cases elsewhere in
China, as the number of new patients outside Hubei fell for a 10th straight
day.

It also disclosed a statistical error, saying it removed 108 previous
deaths in Hubei that had been double-counted. The nationwide toll still rose
to 1,380.

Authorities have placed some 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine
since late last month, in an unprecedented effort to stop the new coronavirus
from spreading.

Some cities in Hubei tightened restrictions this week, sealing off
neighbourhoods in what they liken to “war-time” measures.

Authorities have scrambled to deploy protective equipment to Wuhan’s
hospitals, where doctors and nurses have been overwhelmed by an ever-growing
number of patients.

The government has also built two field hospitals within two weeks and
converted public buildings into makeshift clinics to relieve Wuhan’s
hospitals.

– US criticism –

While the WHO has praised China’s handling of the epidemic — in contrast
to its cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 — a top White House
official on Thursday said Beijing should be more open.

“We are a little disappointed that we haven’t been invited in and we’re a
little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese,”
Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.

Kudlow said President Xi Jinping had assured President Donald Trump that
Beijing would accept US help, but “they won’t let us”.

Kudlow’s comments contrasted with Trump’s apparent confidence in China,
with the US leader telling a radio show that Xi is “extremely capable” and
that the US was “working with them” and “sending a lot of people”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing has had an
“open and transparent attitude” with the global community since the start of
the epidemic.

“The Chinese side has always a positive, open attitude toward cooperation
with the US side,” Geng told reporters, adding that US and Chinese health
departments have maintained close communication and exchanged epidemic
information in a “timely manner”.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines
have halted flights to and from the country.

The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the
vulnerability of China’s northern neighbour, North Korea, and offered to
support aid work in the country.

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