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Deaths rise to 132 in China outbreak; 240 Americans evacuated

Associated Press • Jan 29, 2020 at 5:07 AM

BEIJING — Countries began evacuating their citizens Wednesday from the Chinese city hardest hit by an outbreak of a new virus that has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad.

A plane that a federal official said was evacuating as many as 240 Americans from Wuhan landed early Wednesday in the United States.

The U.S. government chartered the plane to fly out diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan and other U.S. citizens. The plane was to make a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska — where the passengers were to be re-screened and hospitals were prepared to treat or quarantine people who may be infected — before flying on to southern California.

“In the wintertime, we have the ability and the luxury of not having any passenger traffic over there, so it’s a perfect area for us to handle this kind of flight,” said Jim Szczesniak, manager of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Late Tuesday night, officials announced that the plane would land at March Air Reserve Base in California's Riverside County instead of Ontario International Airport in neighboring San Bernardino County.

Ontario International Airport was designated about a decade ago by the U.S. government to receive repatriated Americans in case of an emergency overseas, but it would have been the first time the facility was used for the purpose, said David Wert, spokesman for the county of San Bernardino.

Curt Hagman, an Ontario airport commissioner, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the diversion.

“We were prepared but the State Department decided to switch the flight” to the airbase, Hagman said.

A Japanese flight carrying evacuees home included four people with coughs and fevers, two of whom were diagnosed with pneumonia. The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital in separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks. Another woman developed nausea at the airport and was also hospitalized.

It wasn’t immediately known whether they were infected with the new type of coronavirus that appeared in the central city of Wuhan in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.

China’s latest figures cover the previous 24 hours and add 26 to the number of deaths, 25 of which were in the central province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan. The 5,974 cases on the mainland marked a rise of 1,459 from the previous day, although that rise is a smaller increase than the 1,771 new cases reported on Monday. Dozens of infections have been confirmed abroad as well.

The United Arab Emirates, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, confirmed its first cases on Wednesday in members of a family who had come from Wuhan, the state-run news agency reported. It wasn’t immediately clear how many family members were involved.

British Airways announced it was immediately suspending all flights to and from mainland China after the U.K. government warned against unnecessary travel to the country. BA said in a statement Wednesday that “we apologize to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.” The airline operates daily flights from London’s Heathrow Airport to Shanghai and Beijing.

China’s lockdown of 17 cities has trapped more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

Several countries have confirmed cases of the virus, with most of them being Chinese visitors, people who visited Wuhan or family members in close contact to the sick. Japan’s six confirmed cases include a tour bus driver who drove visiting groups from Wuhan. Germany says four workers at an auto parts company possibly were infected when a colleague from Shanghai visited.

Australia and New Zealand were the latest countries planning evacuations. Both countries also stepped up their travel advice to China, as did Britain. Experts have feared travel during the Lunar New Year holiday would enable the further spread of the virus, and China expanded the holiday to keep people home, closing schools and offices to try to contain it.

Hong Kong’s leader said the territory will cut all rail links to the mainland and halve the number of flights. Mongolia and North Korea were closing their borders with China, and many places have curtailed flights or are screening travelers arriving from China.

The outbreak has also affected international sporting events, with the International Hockey Federation postponing Pro League games in China and qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled in February in soccer, basketball and boxing being moved outside of the country. With just 177 days before the summer Games, Tokyo organizers are on edge over the outbreak’s possible knock-on effects.

In Australia, health officials said the Chinese women’s national soccer team was quarantined in the city of Brisbane over concerns it had passed through Wuhan a week ago. The team will be kept in isolation in a hotel until Wednesday next week. None of the group of 32 players and staff have shown symptoms.

Wuhan is building two hospitals in a matter of days to add 2,500 beds for treatment of patients with the virus.

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.

The source of the virus and the full extent of its spread are still unknown. However, the World Health Organization said most cases reported to date “have been milder, with around 20% of those infected experiencing severe illness.”

On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss the latest information on the outbreak and reiterate their commitment to bringing it under control.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” Tedros said.

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