China virus death toll surges past 1,500, new cases fall

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A man wears a face mask as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, as he stands in a train at Mong Kok MTR station in Hong Kong. (AFP)
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A scanning and transmission electron microscope image of coronavirus released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' (NIAID) Rocky Mountains Laboratories (RML). (NIAID-RML)
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Updated 16 February 2020

China virus death toll surges past 1,500, new cases fall

  • More than 66,000 people have now been infected

BEIJING: The death toll from China’s new coronavirus epidemic jumped past 1,500 on Saturday but new infections fell following a mid-week surge caused by a change in the way cases are counted.
More than 66,000 people have now been infected in China from a virus that emerged in central Hubei province in December before spreading across the country a month later and causing global panic.
Some 1,700 medical workers have been infected, with six dying from the COVID-19 illness, officials said, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain the deepening health crisis.
Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged that the outbreak exposed “shortcomings” in the country’s health emergency response system.
Battling the outbreak is a “big test for the country’s governance system and governance ability,” Xi said as he chaired a political meeting on government reforms this week, according to state media.
Chinese authorities have placed some 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
A number of cities far from the epicenter have also imposed tough measures limiting the number of people who can leave their homes, while schools remain closed nationwide and many companies have encouraged employees to work from home.
Several countries have banned arrivals from China and major airlines have cut services with the country.
But the epidemic has continued to spread across China and hundreds of cases have emerged in more than two dozen countries.
In Singapore, which has 67 confirmed cases, the Roman Catholic Church said it was suspending all masses indefinitely to help prevent the spread of the virus and urged the faithful to follow services on YouTube or the radio.

The National Health Commission reported 143 new deaths on Saturday, with all but four in Hubei, raising the toll to 1,523.


The commission also reported 2,641 new cases of the COVID-19 strain, with the vast majority in Hubei.
The number, however, was almost half those reported the previous day.
The scale of the epidemic swelled this week after authorities in Hubei changed their criteria for counting cases, adding thousands of new patients to their tally.
Previously, they were counting only cases with a positive lab test result but are now also including those “clinically diagnosed” through lung imaging.
Officials said the change was necessary to ensure that patients get treated early amid reports of backlogs in lab tests.
The revision added nearly 15,000 patients to Hubei’s tally on Thursday, with the World Health Organization noting that cases going back weeks were retroactively counted.
“We’re seeking further clarity on how clinical diagnosis is being made to ensure other respiratory illnesses including influenza are not getting mixed into the COVID-19 data,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.
There were over 4,800 cases reported in Hubei on Friday and 2,420 on Saturday.
The number of new confirmed cases has been steadily falling outside Hubei, with 221 infections reported on Saturday.
A top Chinese scientist had predicted that the epidemic could peak by the end of this month after the number of new cases had fallen earlier in the week.
The WHO cautioned that it was “way too early” to make any predictions about the disease’s trajectory.
Authorities said Friday 1,716 medical workers have been infected during the outbreak, with six dying from the illness.
Most of the infections among health workers were in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, where many have lacked proper masks and gear to protect themselves in hospitals dealing with a deluge of patients.
The grim figures come a week after grief and public anger erupted over the death of a whistleblowing doctor who had raised the alarm about the virus in December and been reprimanded and silenced by police in Wuhan.

The US government is preparing to evacuate American citizens aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the site of the most coronavirus infections found outside China and currently quarantined off Japan, the Wall Street Journal reported.
About 380 people will be offered seats on two planes back to the United States and could arrive back home as early as Sunday, the newspaper said, adding that those with a fever, cough or other symptoms will not be allowed on the flights.
Evacuees will have additional health screenings in the United States and some will probably undergo a mandatory quarantine, which will likely be 14 days, Henry Walke, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was quoted as saying.


Obama absent from Democratic White House race but looming large

Updated 42 min 48 sec ago

Obama absent from Democratic White House race but looming large

  • Obama has so far strictly adhered to his pledge to remain out of the fray in terms of endorsing a particular candidate
  • No one is using his connection with the nation’s first black president more arduously than Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president

WASHINGTON: For someone who has gone out of his way to stay off the political radar, Barack Obama could hardly loom larger over the bitter battle for the Democratic White House nomination.
The 44th president of the United States has been quoted dozens of times in primary debates and starred (unwittingly) in campaign ads in the run-up to the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday.
But Obama has so far strictly adhered to his pledge to remain out of the fray in terms of endorsing a particular candidate — though he has launched a few warnings from the sidelines during the primary process.
“The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” Obama told a fund-raising meeting in November.
Though he did not single out a particular candidate, he said most voters did not have the same views as “the activist wing of our party” — a veiled warning about the shift to the left promised by Bernie Sanders.
“Obama is extremely popular within the Democratic Party, and particularly with African-Americans, a key voting bloc in many states” including South Carolina, said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“I can understand why candidates would want to make it seem as though he is backing them.”
Of course, no one is using his connection with the nation’s first black president more arduously than Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president who is seeking a boost to his flagging campaign to take on President Donald Trump.
Biden is “running as Obama’s understudy and heir,” Kondik said. The pair spoke on Tuesday ahead of the South Carolina contest, which is vital to Biden’s chances, The New York Times reported.
But Sanders is riding high as the frontrunner, and the party’s moderates are nervous about the 78-year-old senator’s chances against the Republican incumbent.
“The establishment is freaking out,” blared CNN.
“Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity,” concluded a column in New York magazine.
Nevertheless, next week’s Super Tuesday contests could leave Sanders with a virtually unassailable lead.
“If there is a way to stop — or at least slow — Sanders, most Democratic insiders are convinced it’s this: former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama get behind an alternative candidate to the Vermont senator,” CNN commentator Chris Cilizza wrote this week.
“Not only that, but the Obamas make their endorsements soon — like pre-Super Tuesday — and they urge all of the other candidates to get out of the race ASAP.”
Back in November, Politico reported that Obama planned to make a public statement if Sanders got too far out in front, in a bid to block him from winning the nomination.
If Obama did speak out, his opinion would resonate, but few think that will happen.
“President Obama has several friends in this race, including, of course, his own esteemed vice president,” his spokeswoman Katie Hill said this week in a statement.
“He has said he has no plans to endorse in the primary because he believes that in order for Democrats to be successful this fall, voters must choose their nominee.”
In 2016, Obama threw his weight behind Hillary Clinton, his onetime secretary of state, only when it became clear that she would beat Sanders for the nomination.
But the former US leader has made his views known on elections abroad, formally endorsing Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada during their campaigns.
The rare comment from Obama’s spokeswoman came as part of a condemnation of what she called a “despicable ad” from a pro-Trump PAC in which Obama’s comments were taken “out of context” to disparage Biden.
But he has stayed silent about the many Democrats using his speeches in their ads in a bid to imply they have his support.
Biden of course has leveraged their friendship and partnership, but billionaire Michael Bloomberg, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg have also sought to associate themselves with Obama’s legacy in some way.
And all of them have quoted him to back up their policy positions.
“As Barack Obama said, we should pay attention to where the voters of this country are. And spending nearly $60 trillion is not where they are,” tweeted moderate presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar, as she bashed Sanders’ platform.
Former presidents generally shy away from endorsing candidates after they leave office, with the notable exception of Bill Clinton — who backed his wife in the 2008 and 2016 primaries, Kondik explained.
“I have no idea if Obama might endorse, but there has been no indication that he will. He, like many other Democrats, may honestly be conflicted about who he might back,” the analyst added.
But if Sanders goes on to win the nomination, Kondik said he would be “curious to see whether Obama will speak” at the party’s nominating convention in July.