BEIJING (AP) — China reported Sunday a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day, as it became apparent that the country's leadership was aware of the potential gravity of the situation well before the alarm was sounded.
There are 2,009 new cases in mainland China, bringing its total number of confirmed cases to 68,500, according to the country's National Health Commission.
The fatality rate remained stable with 142 new deaths. The death toll in mainland China from COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, now stands at 1,665.
The outbreak began in December in Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.
It has since spread to more than 24 countries and prompted sweeping prevention measures from the Chinese government, including a lockdown of cities with a combined population of more than 60 million.
Many countries have also placed travel restrictions on recent visitors to China.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping played a muted public role in the early days of the epidemic, state media published Saturday evening a speech Xi delivered Feb. 3 in which he said he gave instructions on fighting the virus as early as Jan. 7.
The disclosure indicates top leaders were aware of the outbreak's potential severity well before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.
In his speech, Xi also revealed that he ordered a lockdown of the virus epicenter: "On Jan. 22, in light of the epidemic's rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people."
On Jan. 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation.
In Japan, some 400 Americans aboard the Diamond Princess, the quarantined cruise ship docked at Yokohama, were told to decide by Sunday morning whether they will stay or take chartered aircraft arranged by the U.S. government to fly them back home.
The flights are expected Sunday evening.
Passenger Matthew Smith The Associated Press that he had already decided he and his wife are not taking the flights and will stay on the ship. "We are not going," he said in a reply on Twitter.
The 14-day quarantine for the ship is set to end as early as Wednesday and Smith said he would rather wait for that. Those taking the chartered planes will be taken to Travis Air Force Base in California, with some continuing to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where they will have to undergo another 14-day quarantine.
So far, 285 people from the ship have tested positive for the virus 67 new cases were found Saturday. Those exhibiting symptoms such as fever and cough won't be allowed to board the evacuation flights, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said.
In Malaysia, an 83-year-old American woman who was a passenger on another cruise ship that was allowed to disembark in Cambodia has tested positive for the virus. The Malaysian Health Ministry said 145 passengers from the MS Westerdam flew to Malaysia on Friday.
The woman and her 85-year-old husband were found to have symptoms upon arrival at the Kuala Lumpur airport and were taken to a hospital for further tests. The woman was diagnosed with the virus Saturday and her husband tested negative but was still under observation.
Cambodia said earlier that all the 1,455 passengers had tested negative for the virus. Many have already made onward flight connections. The ship's operator, Holland America, said in a statement that while the first results have been reported, "they are preliminary at this point and we are awaiting secondary testing for confirmation."
The Malaysian Health Ministry was planning a news briefing later Sunday.
By YANAN WANG Associated Press
Associated Press researcher Henry Hou and writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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