New cases of the COVID-19 in China are dropping, but it’s not the time for a victory lap, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, warning that hopeful trends in the unwieldy outbreak should be viewed with “extreme caution.”
After weeks of trying to contain the deadly new flu strain, Chinese officials reported just over 2,000 new cases Tuesday and 1,500 cases on Wednesday, down from a day-to-day tally of nearly 3,900 new cases a week ago. The slowdown sparked hopes that the outbreak, which has been blamed for more than 1,100 deaths and disrupted global trade patterns since first emerging in Wuhan, China, late last year, is peaking as spring approaches.
Although the pattern is reassuring, WHO officials said, the outbreak could head in any direction.
“We would love to be able to predict the future, but I think we have to be very cautious,” said Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s health emergencies program. “We need to focus on the task. And the task is to contain the virus, to detect the cases, to treat the cases.”
Likewise, U.S. officials said Wednesday that it would be premature to assume the virus will die out once warmer weather arrives in the spring, as President Trump has suggested.
“This is a new disease. We haven’t been through six weeks of it, much less a year,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think it’s premature to assume that. The aggressive actions we’re taking are because we can’t count on that.”
Mr. Trump, speaking to governors this week, said of the virus: “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat, as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April.”
Dr. Messonnier said influenza and other respiratory diseases do tend to be seasonal and decrease after winter, but it remains to be seen whether the new coronavirus follows the same pattern.
Almost 75,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed in mainland China, with about 13,000 announced Wednesday as a result of a new classification by the Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus. The province said it is now including the number of clinically diagnosed cases with the number of confirmed cases, as other provinces do.
Outside of China, about 450 cases have been reported in two dozen countries. One man died in the Philippines after traveling there from Wuhan.
China’s communist government has faced withering criticism for being slow to publicly acknowledge the virus and stifling the voice of a doctor who blew the whistle in Wuhan, the Hubei province city at the center of the outbreak. The whistleblowing doctor has died from the disease.
WHO praises China
WHO officials, eager to preserve lines of communication and cooperation with Beijing, hasn’t joined the chorus of critics. Instead, its directors have praised Chinese officials for their vigorous response since notifying the agency about the coronavirus. Wuhan, China’s seventh-largest city, has been largely shut down. More hospitals have been built quickly, and an aggressive public education campaign is underway.
Dr. Ryan said China picked “the needle out of the haystack” by identifying a batch of unusual pneumonia cases in a region of 23 million people.
“Given the huge population involved, and given the unusual nature of the pneumonia, which was quite similar to influenza on presentation, it’s quite amazing that the signal was picked up,” he said. “Now is not the time for recrimination, now is not the time for forensics. Now is the time to fight this virus, and we can deal with other issues later, in my view.”
China will be sterilizing public transportation systems and checking travelers’ temperatures as millions return to work at the close of the Lunar New Year period next week.
Speaking on state television, President Xi Jinping said Beijing will provide tax cuts and other aid to economic sectors hurt by the outbreak.
Organizers of the annual Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest mobile technology fair, announced Wednesday that they were canceling the gathering scheduled to start Feb. 24 in Barcelona, Spain, because of spreading fears of the virus outbreak.
U.S. officials continue to screen passengers from China at 11 airports and quarantining evacuees from Hubei province.
The CDC said it has checked more than 30,000 passengers since setting up its screening procedure, which calls for 14 days of mandatory quarantine among passengers from Hubei province and self-monitoring at home for anyone from the rest of mainland China.
Officials haven’t found any infections of passengers funneling through the designated airports. Most of the known cases in the U.S. appeared before the measures went into place.
However, two people evacuated from the U.S. on State Department flights tested positive this week in California, bringing the U.S. case count to 14.
The CDC said the patients arrived on separate flights from Wuhan and were housed in separate places, so there is no epidemiologic link between them.
“At this time there is no indication of person-to-person spread of this virus at the quarantine facility, but CDC will carry out a thorough contact investigation as part of its current response strategy to detect and contain any cases of infection with this virus,” said Chris Braden, the on-site team lead for CDC.
WHO and the U.S. are also in close contact with Japanese officials over the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked off of Yokohama. Doctors have diagnosed at least 175 cases of COVID-19 on the ship, and the passengers have been confined to their cabins.
Only the sick are being removed from the ship, where about 3,600 people on board are quarantined. Critics say Japanese authorities should figure out a way to get passengers and crew to safety before more become ill.
The CDC reported that some American passengers had been infected but couldn’t say how many. More than 400 Americans are aboard, the agency said.
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