China still mostly closed down as virus deaths pass 1,000

BEIJING — The daily death toll in China from a new virus topped 100 for the first time, pushing the total fatalities above 1,000 Tuesday as the World Health Organization announced a new name for the disease caused by the virus.

Despite the official end of the extended Lunar New Year holiday, China remained mostly closed for business as many remained at home, with some 60 million people under virtual quarantine.

In Geneva, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced a new name for the disease caused by the virus — COVID-19 — saying officials wanted to avoid stigmatizing any geographic location, group of people or animal that might be linked to the disease and to make it clear it was a new coronavirus discovered in 2019.

“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks,” the WHO chief said, adding that the name was agreed upon by officials at WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Here are the latest developments:

PROVINCIAL HEALTH OFFICIALS SACKED

With the death toll reaching 1,016 in mainland China and no end in sight, heads are beginning to roll.

While no central government-level officials have lost their jobs, state media reported Tuesday that the top health officials in Hubei province, home to the epicenter of Wuhan, have been relieved of their duties.

No reasons were given, although the province’s initial response was deemed slow and ineffective. Speculation that higher-level officials could be sacked has simmered, but doing so could spark political infighting and be a tacit admission that the Communist Party dropped the ball.

The virus outbreak has become the latest political challenge for the party and its leader, Xi Jinping, who despite accruing more political power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has struggled to handle crises on multiple fronts. These include a sharply slowing domestic economy, the trade war with the U.S. and push-back on China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies.

A total of 42,638 virus infections have been recorded on the Chinese mainland.

MAJOR CHALLENGES AHEAD

Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said that while the virus outbreak in China may peak this month, the situation at the center of the crisis remains more challenging.

“We still need more time of hard working in Wuhan,” he said of the central Chinese city where the outbreak started.

Speaking by teleconference to doctors in Wuhan, Zhong said the priority is to separate the infected from the healthy in their city.

“We have to stop more people from being infected,” he said. “The problem of human to human transmission has not yet been resolved.”

Without enough facilities to handle the number of cases, Wuhan has been building prefab hospitals and converting a gym and other large spaces to house patients and try to isolate them from others.

RISKS OF RESTARTING BUSINESS

The crossing of more grim thresholds has dimmed optimism that the near-quarantine of some 60 million people and other disease-control measures are working.

The restart of business poses a risk of further spreading the virus, but China has little recourse, said Cong Liang, secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning body.

“Without the reopening of businesses, in the short term, it will affect the supply of medical material and … in the long run, it will affect the supply of all kinds of production and life materials and will make the control and prevention efforts on the front line unsustainable. The target of defeating the epidemic will not be reached,” Cong said at a news conference.

HONG KONG

In Hong Kong, authorities evacuated some residents of an apartment block after two cases among those living there raised suspicion that the virus may be spreading through the building’s plumbing.

It was reminiscent of the SARS outbreak that killed hundreds in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. The biggest number of connected cases in that outbreak were in one apartment complex where the virus spread through sewage pipes.

Health officials called it a precautionary measure after a 62-year-old woman diagnosed with the virus Tuesday was found living 10 floors below a man who was earlier confirmed infected. The woman’s son and daughter-in-law, who live with her, were among seven new cases reported last week in the city, where a total of 49 people have been infected.

The 34 households evacuated live above or below the woman and share the same sewage system. A modified toilet drainage pipe in her unit may have helped spread the virus and officials are checking if any other units have made such alterations while they disinfect the building.

GLOBAL FLOW OF MAIL DISRUPTED

Postal operators in the United States, China, Singapore and elsewhere said the suspension of flights to slow the virus spread was having a major impact on the global flow of letters and parcels.

The United States Postal Service informed its counterparts around the world on Tuesday that it was “experiencing significant difficulties” in dispatching letters, parcels and express mail to China, including Hong Kong and Macau, because airlines have suspended flights to those destinations.

It said in the note that “until sufficient transport capacity becomes available,”it would no longer accept mail from other countries that transits via USPS to China, Hong Kong and Macau. That would start immediately, the note said. The Postal Service told AP that hiatus only affected transit mail and not letters and parcels posted in the United States.

The Universal Postal Union, a U.N. agency for postal cooperation between its 192 member countries, said the flight suspensions would impact mail delivery “for the foreseeable future.”

The Chinese mail service, China Post, said it was disinfecting postal offices, processing centers and vehicles to ensure the virus doesn’t spread via the mail and to protect postal staff.

The virus does “not survive for long on objects. It is therefore safe to receive postal items from China,” China Post said.

EVACUEES LEAVE QUARANTINE IN U.S.

A group of 195 evacuees were cleared Tuesday to end a two-week quarantine at a Southern California military base where they had been staying since flying out of China.

After everyone at March Air Reserve Base passed their final health screenings, they threw their face masks into the air and hugged, said Dr. Nancy Knight of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These individuals have completed their quarantine. They pose no health risk to themselves, to their families, to their places of work, to schools or their communities,” she told reporters of the group, who arrived Jan. 29 aboard a chartered flight from Wuhan.

“They have been watched more closely than anyone else in the United States.”

There have been 13 confirmed cases in the United States, including seven in California. More than 460 cases have been confirmed outside mainland China, including two deaths in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Of those, 135 are quarantined aboard a cruise ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo.