The death toll from a new virus has risen to 80 with more than 2,700 confirmed cases, China’s government said Monday, after the health minister warned that the virus’s ability to “spread is getting stronger.”
China also Monday extended the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday by 3 days to next Sunday in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
The National Health Commission said there were 769 new cases confirmed in the 24 hours through midnight Sunday, totaling 2,744 confirmed cases.
The government also reported five cases in Hong Kong and two in Macao. Scattered have been found in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France, Canada and Australia. The U.S. has confirmed cases in Washington state, Chicago, Southern California and Arizona.
President Xi Jinping has called the outbreak a grave situation and said the government was stepping up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to the city at the center of the crisis, Wuhan, which remains on lockdown with no flights, trains or buses in or out.
While warning the virus seemed be spreading more easily, China’s Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said travel restrictions and other strict measures should bring results “at the lowest cost and fastest speed.”
The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan plans evacuate its personnel and some other Americans aboard a charter flight. France and Japan were weighing similar decisions.
The epidemic has revived memories of the SARS outbreak that originated in China and killed nearly 800 as it spread around the world in 2002 and 2003. Its spread has come amid China’s busiest travel period of the year, when millions crisscross the country or head abroad for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
A notice from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said there would be limited capacity to transport U.S. citizens on a Tuesday flight from Wuhan that will proceed directly to San Francisco. It said that in the event there are not enough seats, priority will be given to to individuals “at greater risk from coronavirus.”
The French Consulate also was considering an evacuation of its nationals from the city. It said it’s working on arranging a bus service to help French citizens leave Wuhan.
French automaker PSA Group said it will evacuate its employees from Wuhan, quarantine them and then bring them to France.
Japan was also making preparations to fly its nationals out of Wuhan.
Chinese travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours, and concern is growing over the potential impact of millions of people traveling back to the cities after the Lunar New Year holiday ends on Thursday.
China’s National Health Commission said anyone traveling from Wuhan is now required to register with community health stations and quarantine themselves at home for 14 days — the virus’ maximum incubation period.
Beijing has decided to delay the start of classes after the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday ends, the official Beijing Daily reported on its website. That will extend to all schools in the capital from kindergartens to universities.
In the heart of the outbreak where 11 million residents are already on lockdown, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas.
China cut off trains, planes and other links to the city Jan. 22, and has steadily expanded the lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million.
Wuhan is building two makeshift hospitals with about 1,000 beds each to handle patients. The city has said the first is expected to be completed Feb. 3.
Medical workers in Wuhan have been among those infected and local media reported a doctor died on Saturday morning. The 62-year-old physician was hospitalized on Jan. 18 and died a week later.
Xinhua also said medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.
The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak and the Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks, including SARS and Ebola, Xinhua reported.
The new virus is part of the coronavirus family that includes the common cold but also more severe illnesses like SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The new virus causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia.
The first cases of the virus surfaced last month and are thought to have been transmitted to people via wild animals sold at a food market in Wuhan.
Chinese authorities announced a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals Sunday and called on the public to refrain from eating wild animal meat.