Coronavirus: Chinese health experts warn patients can get reinfected

The daily death toll from the rapidly spreading coronavirus hit a record high in China on Thursday, health authorities said, with 43 more fatalities – 42 of them in Hubei province, the outbreak’s epicentre.

Of the newly reported deaths, 30 were in Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan, where the virus was first reported, according to the Hubei health commission. The other death was in Heilongjiang province, in the country’s northeast, as Thursday’s toll took the total number of deaths nationwide to 213, with none so far reported outside mainland China.

A total of 1,982 new cases were confirmed on the mainland on Thursday, bringing the country’s total to 9,692, far exceeding that of the 2002-03 Sars epidemic, which killed almost 800 people worldwide.

No more square-dancing

Medical experts on Friday warned that patients who had recovered from the virus were still at risk of being infected again, and said people should avoid any mass gathering, even dancing in public parks and squares – a popular activity for exercise in China.

Zhan Qingyuan, head of infectious diseases at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, said in a press briefing on Friday that people who had already had the virus would have developed antibodies but should remain on alert so they did not get ill again.

“The antibodies may not remain for a long time, so there is still a risk that these recovered patients will be infected again,” Zhan said. “They should continue to keep themselves protected.”

The National Health Commission said 47 patients had recovered from the virus on Thursday.

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Zhan said people could still go for a walk in the park, but they should avoid group dance activities.

“Dancing itself increases the risk of cross-infections. It uses a lot of oxygen, so it will be hard to breathe with a mask on while you’re dancing,” he said. “Joining in square-dancing with a mask on is risky, especially for people with hypertension and heart disease.”

Taiwanese on mainland get virus

Two Taiwanese who were stranded on the mainland have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the island’s Mainland Affairs Council said on Friday night.

One of them is a businessman in Wuhan, and the other worked in the city but was diagnosed after flying to Shenzhen earlier this month.

The council called for the two patients to be given proper treatment, and for Beijing to allow the evacuation of Taiwanese.

Hubei residents to fly home

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed on Friday that China was to arrange chartered flights to take Hubei residents stranded abroad to Wuhan.

“Considering the difficulties facing Chinese citizens overseas, especially those from Wuhan, the Chinese government decided to send chartered flights as early as possible to take them back to Wuhan,” Hua said in a one-sentence statement.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China said it would arrange two chartered flights on Friday, operated by Xiamen Air, to repatriate Wuhan residents from Bangkok in Thailand and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.

US: don’t go to China

Following the decision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare a global public health emergency over the spread of the coronavirus, the United States advised against travel to China.

“Do not travel to China, due to novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China,” a travel advisory issued by the US said. “Travellers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice. Commercial carriers have reduced or suspended routes to and from China.”

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Those already in China should consider departing using commercial means, and the US State Department has requested that all non-essential US government personnel defer travel to China, the advisory said.

The US embassy in Beijing said its consulates in China were cancelling visa appointments for the next week.

The German foreign ministry also issued a travel warning on Friday morning, advising against travel to Hubei province. The ministry recommended that non-essential travel to China be postponed “if possible”.

Wuhan in need

As the Chinese government scrambles to contain the outbreak, the contagion has spread to all 31 of mainland China’s provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, and at least 19 other countries or territories.

Beijing has sent more than 7,000 medical workers to Hubei to help fight the disease. As of Thursday, the province had reported 5,806 confirmed cases, with 32,340 people still under observation for infection. A total of 804 patients were in severe condition and 290 in critical condition.

Two coronavirus hospitals – Huoshenshan and Leishenshan – were under construction and expected to be completed next week, adding 2,300 beds to help ease an acute shortage in the central city of Wuhan.

Meanwhile, China has imported more than 56.228 million masks in the past week, according to the General Administration of Customs. Some 290 million yuan (US$41.8 million) worth of protective gear was imported from January 24 to 30, it said on Friday. That included the masks, 69,000 pairs of goggles, and 738,000 items of protective clothing.

Flights out

Despite the WHO’s upgraded assessment on Thursday, as cases continued to spread outside China, WHO officials said they opposed any move to close China’s borders or restrict Chinese travellers’ movement.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organisation’s director general, said the move was “not a vote of no confidence in China” but was intended to prevent the “damage this virus could do if it were to spread to a country with a weaker health system”.

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However, more than a dozen countries have started to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.

On Thursday, the US State Department allowed American diplomatic staff and their families in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou to leave the country.

“The Department of State made the decision to put the US embassy and consulates general on authorised departure status out of an abundance of caution related to logistical disruptions stemming from restricted transportation and availability of appropriate health care related to the novel coronavirus,” the department said in a statement.

Pakistan on Friday halted flights to and from China with immediate effect, Reuters reported. A civil aviation official was quoted as saying that flights were suspended until Sunday, when the situation would be reviewed.

Kenya Airways also suspended flights to China until further notice. And Finnish carrier Finnair said it would suspend all flights to and from mainland China for most of February.

Other major airlines such as United, Lufthansa and British Airways had already cut down or halted their flights to China, and there have been reports of people from Hubei being refused permission to board flights.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific said it would halt all Italy flights with immediate effect after Rome imposed a flight ban on all Greater China flights. The sweeping ban, announced by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday, will last until April 28. Italy reported its first coronavirus cases on Friday. It also had a scare with a cruise ship when two passengers fell ill, but they were later cleared of the virus.

British health officials also announced the country’s first two confirmed cases, while Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said two people had also been diagnosed with the coronavirus there.

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