China counts more virus deaths, illnesses as impact broadens

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BEIJING–China reported 1,886 new virus cases and 98 more deaths in its update Tuesday on a disease outbreak that has caused mild illness in most people, an assessment that promoted guarded optimism from global health authorities. The update raised the number of deaths in mainland China to 1,868 and the total confirmed cases to 72,436.

On Monday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a study of earlier cases of the disease, finding that more than 80% of people infected had mild illness and the number of new infections seems to be falling since early this month. Monday’s report gives the World Health Organization a clearer picture of where the outbreak is headed, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference.

But he added it was too early to know if the reported decline would continue. “Every scenario is still on the table,” he said. The seeming drop in the number of cases follows a large spike last week after hard-hit Hubei province began counting cases by doctors’ diagnoses without waiting for laboratory test results. Health authorities there said the change was meant to get patients treated faster.

The disease named COVID-19 emerged in December in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital, and the surrounding region has been put under lockdown to try to contain the outbreak. Transportation has been halted, thousands of hospital beds have been added, and military doctors and nurses have been deployed to staff facilities in the overwhelmed local health-care system. State broadcaster CCTV reported that the director of Wuhan’s Wuchang Hospital, Liu Zhiming, had died of COVID-19 on Tuesday morning, citing a Beijing medical team sent to help. No official notice was given and other details were not available.

Earlier, public outrage was stirred by the death from the virus of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who had been threatened by police after releasing word of an outbreak of unusual respiratory illness in January before the city was placed under quarantine.

China may postpone its biggest political meeting of the year to avoid having people travel to Beijing while the virus is still spreading. The standing committee for the National People’s Congress will meet Feb. 24 to deliberate postponing the annual event due to start March 5.

China’s biannual auto show, one of the industry’s biggest international events, has been postponed, and many sports and entertainment events have been delayed or canceled.

The Chinese CDC’s study examined 44,672 cases of the disease that were confirmed in China as of Feb. 11. Severe symptoms such as pneumonia occurred in 14% of them and critical illness in 5%. The fatality rate was 2.3% - 2.8% for males versus 1.7% for females.

The death rate is lower than for SARS and MERS, diseases caused by coronaviruses related to the one that causes COVID-19. But the new virus ultimately could prove more deadly if it spreads to far more people than the others did. Ordinary flu has a fatality rate of 0.1% yet kills hundreds of thousands because it infects millions each year.

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