Pres­i­dent Xi says coun­try faces a grave chal­lenge.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ken Moritsugu

BEI­JING — China’s leader on Satur­day called the ac­cel­er­at­ing spread of a new virus a grave sit­u­a­tion, as cities from the out­break’s epi­cen­ter in cen­tral China to Hong Kong scram­bled to con­tain an ill­ness that has killed 56 peo­ple and in­fected more than 1,975 oth­ers.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s re­marks, re­ported by state broad­caster CCTV, came at a meet­ing of Com­mu­nist Party lead­ers con­vened on Lu­nar New Year — the coun­try’s big­gest hol­i­day whose cel­e­bra­tions have been muted — and un­der­lined the gov­ern­ment’s ur­gent, ex­pand­ing ef­forts to con­trol the out­break.

Travel agen­cies have been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned English-lan­guage China Daily news­pa­per re­ported, cit­ing the China As­so­ci­a­tion of Travel Ser­vices.

Mil­lions of peo­ple trav­el­ing dur­ing the hol­i­day have fu­eled the spread of the out­break na­tion­wide and over­seas after it be­gan in the city of Wuhan in cen­tral China. The vast ma­jor­ity of the in­fec­tions and all the deaths have been in main­land China, but fresh cases are pop­ping up.

Aus­tralia and Malaysia re­ported their first cases Satur­day — four each — and Ja­pan its third. France con­firmed three cases Fri­day, the first in Europe, and the U.S. iden­ti­fied its sec­ond, a woman in Chicago who had re­turned from China.

In the heart of the out­break where 11 mil­lion res­i­dents are al­ready on lock­down, Wuhan banned most ve­hi­cle use, in­clud­ing pri­vate cars, in down­town ar­eas start­ing Sun­day, state me­dia re­ported. Only au­tho­rized ve­hi­cles would be per­mit­ted, the re­ports said.

The city will as­sign 6,000 taxis to neigh­bor­hoods, un­der the man­age­ment of res­i­dent com­mit­tees, to help peo­ple get around if they need to, China Daily said.

In Hong Kong, leader Car­rie Lam said her gov­ern­ment will raise its re­sponse level to emer­gency, the high­est one, and close pri­mary and sec­ondary schools for two more weeks on top of the Lu­nar New Year hol­i­day. The schools will re­open Feb. 17.

Lam said di­rect flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked.

In a sign of the grow­ing strain on Wuhan’s health care sys­tem, the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency re­ported that the city planned to build a sec­ond makeshift hos­pi­tal with about 1,000 beds. The city has said an­other hos­pi­tal was ex­pected to be com­pleted Feb. 3.

The virus comes from a large fam­ily of what are known as coro­n­aviruses, some caus­ing noth­ing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symp­toms, in­clud­ing cough and fever, and in more se­vere cases, short­ness of breath. It can worsen to pneu­mo­nia, which can be fa­tal.

China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wed­nes­day, as well as public trans­porta­tion within the city, and has steadily ex­panded a lock­down to 16 sur­round­ing cities with a com­bined pop­u­la­tion of more than 50 mil­lion — greater than that of New York, Lon­don, Moscow and Paris com­bined.

China’s big­gest hol­i­day, Lu­nar New Year, un­folded Satur­day in the shadow of the virus. Au­thor­i­ties can­celed a host of events, and closed ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tions and movie the­aters.

Tem­ples locked their doors, Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City and Shang­hai Dis­ney­land closed, and peo­ple can­celed res­tau­rant reser­va­tions ahead of the hol­i­day, nor­mally a time of fam­ily re­unions, sight­see­ing trips and other fes­tiv­i­ties in the coun­try of 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple.

“We orig­i­nally planned to go back to my wife’s home­town and bought train tick­ets to de­part this af­ter­noon,” said Li Meng­bin, who was on a stroll near the closed For­bid­den City. “We ended up can­cel­ing. But I’m still happy to cel­e­brate the new year in Bei­jing, which I hadn’t for sev­eral years.”

Tem­ples and parks were dec­o­rated with red stream­ers, pa­per lanterns and booths, but some places started dis­man­tling the decor.

Peo­ple in China wore pro­tec­tive med­i­cal masks to public places like gro­cery stores, where work­ers dis­pensed hand san­i­tizer to customers. Some parts of the coun­try had check­points for tem­per­a­ture read­ings and made masks manda­tory.

The Na­tional Health Com­mis­sion re­ported a jump in the num­ber of in­fected peo­ple, to 1,975. The lat­est tally, from 29 prov­inces and cities across China, in­cluded 237 pa­tients in se­ri­ous con­di­tion.

Of the 56 deaths, the ma­jor­ity have been in Hubei prov­ince, where Wuhan is the cap­i­tal city.

French au­tomaker PSA Group says it will evac­u­ate its em­ploy­ees from Wuhan, quar­an­tine them and then bring them to France. The For­eign Min­istry said it was work­ing on “even­tual op­tions” to evac­u­ate French ci­ti­zens from Wuhan “who want to leave.”

The Na­tional Health Com­mis­sion said it is bring­ing in med­i­cal teams to help han­dle the out­break, a day after videos cir­cu­lat­ing on­line showed throngs of fran­tic peo­ple in masks lined up for ex­am­i­na­tions and com­plaints that fam­ily mem­bers had been turned away at hospi­tals that were at ca­pac­ity.

The Chi­nese mil­i­tary dis­patched 450 med­i­cal staff, some with ex­pe­ri­ence in past out­breaks, in­clud­ing SARS and Ebola, who ar­rived in Wuhan late Fri­day to help treat pa­tients hos­pi­tal­ized with vi­ral pneu­mo­nia, Xin­hua re­ported.


A med­i­cal staffer takes the tem­per­a­ture of a man Satur­day at the Wuhan Red Cross Hos­pi­tal in Wuhan, China.

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