(BEIJING) — Chinese health officials have revealed for the first time the number of frontline workers who have been infected by the novel coronavirus.
Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, told reporters Friday that so far, 1,716 medical workers have tested positive for the newly discovered virus, known officially as COVID-19, and six of them have died. Most of the workers were in Hubei, the province at the center of the outbreak since the first coronavirus cases emerged in its capital, Wuhan, back in December.
“At present, the duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy,” Zeng said at a press conference Friday. “Their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great and the risk of infection is high.”
As of Friday, there were 63,851 reports of confirmed cases and 1,380 deaths on the Chinese mainland. More than 81% of the confirmed infections were reported in Hubei province. There were another 81 reports of confirmed cases and one death in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong, according to the National Health Commission.
Hubei province reported a nearly tenfold increase in cases on Thursday morning, after health officials applied new methodology to how cases are categorized.
The Health Commission of Hubei Province explained in a press release that the record spike was due to a change in how cases are diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including “clinically diagnosed cases,” or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but have not yet had laboratory testing.
The expanded criteria is meant to ensure “that patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment,” the commission said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, said at a press conference Thursday that the overnight increase in cases from China shouldn’t be considered a spike since they are being retrospectively reported.
“We need to be cautious when drawing conclusions from daily reported numbers,” Ryan told reporters. “We need to be very careful when reporting any extremes.”
There are at least 447 cases confirmed in 24 other countries, according to the WHO, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency. There’s been one death in Japan and one in the Philippines, bringing the global death toll to three.
So far, there are only 15 cases confirmed in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patients are in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. All but two of the U.S. cases are linked to travel to Wuhan, China.
COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from mild, such as a slight cough, to more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the CDC. There is no vaccine yet for the virus, nor any known effective therapeutics.
Meanwhile, a cruise ship quarantined at sea in Japan has become the largest center of infection of anywhere outside China.
Since the Diamond Princess arrived at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3, at least 218 people on board have tested positive for the new coronavirus. At least one quarantine officer has also been infected, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
All those infected with the disease on the Diamond Princess have been brought ashore for treatment, while the other passengers have been confined to their rooms on board as the ship remains quarantined at sea.
However, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced Thursday its plans for a voluntary disembarkation of guests to complete their quarantine period at a shoreside facility.
A spokesperson for Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, said “it is our understanding that this will be a phased approach, with the most medically vulnerable guests in the first phase, including older adults with pre-existing health conditions.”
“According to officials, guests in the first group will be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus,” the cruise line spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. “If the test is positive, they will be transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and isolation. If the test is negative, they will be given the option to leave the ship and be transported to a quarantine housing facility.”
All guests aboard the Diamond Princess “remain welcome to stay on board through the end of the quarantine period,” the spokesperson added.
Earlier in the week, the spokesperson told ABC News that 23 Americans were among those who had tested positive for COVID-19. It’s unclear whether any additional U.S. citizens have been infected since then.
Approximately half of all people who were onboard the Diamond Princess are from Japan, while more than 400 passengers are from the United States, according to the cruise line spokesperson.
Natalie Costa, the cruise director aboard the Diamond Princess, posted a video message on Friday, saying, “We are all hanging in there, doing fine and keeping together as a big family.”
“A lot of questions coming in about what we’re doing during the day,” Costa continued. “It changes, changes from hour to hour. We’re manning the photos were getting deliveries out, different games and puzzles.”
“Wherever we’re required,” she added, “that is where we are.”
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