BEIJING (AP) — Inspectors in protective suits went door-to-door Wednesday in the epicenter of China's viral outbreak to try to find every infected person in the city hit by the coronavirus epidemic.
Wuhan, where the new form of coronavirus emerged, was in the final day of a campaign to root out anyone with symptoms whom authorities may have missed.
"This must be taken seriously," said Wang Zhonglin, the city's new Communist Party secretary. "If a single new case is found (after Wednesday), the district leaders will be held responsible."
His remarks were published on Hubei's provincial website, alongside the declaration, "If the masses cannot mobilize, it's impossible to fight a people's war."
Mainland China reported 1,749 new cases and 136 additional deaths. While the overall spread of the virus allegedly has been slowing, the situation remains severe in Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan. Infections in Hubei constitute more than 80% of the country's 74,185 cases and 95% of its 2,004 deaths, according to data from China's National Health Commission.
Cities in Hubei with a combined population of more than 60 million have been under lockdown since the Lunar New Year holiday in January, the busiest time of the year for travel. Authorities put a halt to nearly all transportation and movement except for quarantine efforts, medical care and delivery of food and basic necessities. "Wartime" measures were implemented in some places, with residents prevented from leaving their homes.
The stringent measures have followed public fury over Hubei authorities’ handling of the outbreak when it began in December. The risk of human-to-human transmission was downplayed, and doctors who tried to warn the public were reprimanded by police. Wuhan residents reported overcrowding in hospitals and futile attempts to seek treatment.
Many countries have set up border screenings and airlines have canceled flights to and from China to prevent spread of the disease, which has been detected in around two dozen countries and caused about 1,000 confirmed cases outside mainland China. Five deaths have been reported outside the mainland — in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and France.
China's top diplomat arrived in Laos on Wednesday for an emergency meeting with counterparts from Southeast Asian countries, which have expressed alarm over the viral outbreak.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi was expected to discuss the crisis with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over dinner Wednesday in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, then hold broader formal talks on Thursday. Six countries in the 10-nation bloc have confirmed cases of the new virus.
In Hong Kong, a spokesman for Princess Margaret Hospital reported the city's second death in 62 cases. The victim was a 70-year-old man with underlying illnesses.
Passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess cruise ship after the much-criticized two-week onboard quarantine in Japan ended Wednesday, with 79 more virus cases confirmed for a total of 621 — the most in any place outside of China.
South Korea evacuated six South Koreans and a Japanese family member from the ship, and they began an additional 14-day quarantine Wednesday. More than 300 American passengers were evacuated earlier and are being quarantined in the United States, including at least 14 who tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government said the more than 100 American passengers who stayed on the ship or were hospitalized in Japan would have to wait for another two weeks before they could return to the United States.
Passengers from the MS Westerdam, another cruise ship, have tested negative for the virus, Cambodia's Health Ministry said Wednesday.
Seven hundred of the Westerdam's passengers had already left Cambodia after the ship docked last week, only to have one woman test positive for the virus when she arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The discovery that the 83-year-old American woman harbored the virus caused the suspension of plans to send home the other passengers still in Cambodia.
The dispersal of those who had already left for various countries has caused concern that they might be undetected carriers of the virus, and health authorities in several nations were tracing them to take protective measures.
"Prevention and control work is at a critical time," Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a phone call Tuesday evening with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to Chinese state media.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told The Associated Press in an interview in Lahore, Pakistan, that the viral outbreak "is not out of control, but it is a very dangerous situation." He said that "the risks are enormous and we need to be prepared worldwide for that."
Outside Hubei, other localities have imposed quarantine measures to varying degrees. Residential neighborhoods in Beijing have placed limits on the number of people per household who can go out, and those who do must carry exit-entry cards. In Shanghai, police detained a man for 10 days for repeatedly leaving his house and taking public transportation when he was supposed to be under quarantine at home.
Despite such warnings, Beijing was showing signs of coming back to life this week, with road traffic at around a quarter of usual, up from virtually nothing a week ago. While most restaurants, stores and office buildings remained closed, others reopened.
China may postpone its biggest political meeting of the year, the annual congress due to start in March, to avoid having people travel to Beijing while the virus is still spreading. One of the automotive industry's biggest events, China's biannual auto show, was postponed, and many sports and entertainment events have been delayed or canceled.
The United States has upgraded its travel advisory for China to Level 4, telling its citizens not to travel to anywhere in the country and advising those in China to try to leave by commercial means.
"In the event that the situation further deteriorates, the ability of the U.S. Embassy and Consulates to provide assistance to U.S. nationals within China may be limited. The United States is not offering chartered evacuation flights from China," the notice said.
"We strongly urge U.S. citizens remaining in China to stay home as much as possible and limit contact with others, including large gatherings. Consider stocking up on food and other supplies to limit movement outside the home," the notice said. The United States has flown out scores of its citizens on charter flights from Wuhan but does not have any plans to do so again, it said.
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