Number of coronavirus cases in China passes 75,000

As the number of coronavirus cases in China rose again by the end of Thursday, South Korea's fourth-largest city struggled to cope with a spike in illnesses after what authorities described as a "super-spreading event" at a church.

Spike in illnesses in South Korean city prompts mayor to ban mass gatherings

Medical personnel walk among patients with mild symptoms of coronavirus resting at night in the temporary hospital set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. (AFP/Getty Images)

The latest:

  • Health commission in China reports 75,465 confirmed cases on mainland, with 2,236 deaths.
  • China has changed how it counts confirmed cases, raising questions about data.
  • South Korea has 156 confirmed cases, including 1 death.
  • Daegu mayor tells residents to stay inside after dozens of new cases confirmed in city.
  • 2 Japanese passengers of Diamond Princess cruise ship have died.
  • Canadian passengers on cruise ship who tested negative for COVID-19 on flight to CFB Trenton.

Mainland China had 889 new, confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, China's National Health Commission said, up from 394 cases a day earlier.

That brings its total number of confirmed cases to 75,465.

The death toll from the outbreak in mainland China reached 2,236 as of the end of Thursday, up by 118 from the previous day.

The central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, reported 115 new deaths, while in the provincial capital of Wuhan, 99 people died.

Earlier on Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) had said an overall decline in the number of new cases in China in recent days was encouraging, but warned it was too early to know if the trend would continue.

"We are encouraged by this trend but this is no time for complacency," the WHO's director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a briefing in Geneva on Thursday morning.

WATCH | Empty streets in Wuhan:

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Video taken on the streets of Wuhan shows a city of 11 million people that appears almost deserted. 1:31

In China, officials have been pointing to evidence that new cases were declining as proof they are succeeding in keeping the virus largely contained to Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, where the virus initially emerged.

But revisions to their methodology have raised doubts about the data. Prior to Thursday night's tally, under the latest methodology, which excludes chest X-rays, China had reported fewer than 400 new cases the day before.  

Only last week, another change in Chinese methodology created an overnight spike of nearly 15,000 new cases, reversing a trend of falling numbers that Chinese officials had previously touted as evidence their disease-fighting strategy was working.

Scientists in China who studied nose and throat swabs from 18 patients infected with the virus said it behaves much more like influenza than other closely related viruses, suggesting it may spread even more easily than previously believed.

In at least one case, the virus was present even though the patient had no symptoms, suggesting symptom-free patients could spread the disease, they wrote in preliminary findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"If confirmed, this is very important," said Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who was not involved with the study. China has imposed severe controls in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, to halt the spread of the virus, and has taken urgent steps to keep the overall economy from crashing.

Spike in South Korea

South Korean officials have designated two cities as "special care zones" while its military confined troops to their bases in a desperate effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus after a recent spike in cases.

South Korea reported 52 new confirmed cases, taking the national total to 156, the majority in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.

Malls, restaurants and streets in city were largely empty as the mayor called the outbreak an "unprecedented crisis."

Workers wearing protective gears move a patient suspected of contracting coronavirus from an ambulance to the Kyungpook National University Hospital in Daegu, South Korea. (Yonhap/Associated Press)

Of the national tally, 111 patients are from Daegu or nearby. Most have been traced to an infected 61-year-old woman known as "Patient 31" who attended a church, a scenario that health authorities described as a "super-spreading event."

As of Friday local time, more than 400 members of the church were showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing.

He said the city would ban any kind of mass gathering and repeated a request for residents to stay at home.

The coronavirus has created alarm because there are a still many important unknowns surrounding it. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

Many of South Korea's initial patients have recovered, though it reported the first death from the virus on Thursday.

The government will designate Daegu and neighbouring Cheongdo County as "special care zones," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a meeting of senior government officials in Seoul on Friday.

"It is urgent to find those who were in contact with the infected and treat the diagnosed people as soon as possible," Chung said. "We will proactively provide necessary assistance including sickbeds, personnel and equipment."

The government also plans to send military medical staff, and provide temporary isolation facilities, he said.

In the capital of Seoul, city officials said they would not allow any of the large protests and demonstrations that are often held on the weekends, Yonhap news agency reported.

After several military members tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to ban all soldiers from taking leave, leaving their barracks and receiving guests.

Some exceptions would be made for family emergencies or for soldiers at the end of their military service, the ministry said.

2 Diamond Princess passengers die

Japan reported the deaths of two elderly passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off Yokohama. They appear to be the first people to have died from the disease from aboard the ship, the biggest cluster of infection outside mainland China, with more than 630 cases.

"Our hearts go out to the families, friends and all who are impacted by these losses," said a statement sent by the cruise line to CBC News on Thursday afternoon. "All of us at Princess Cruises, as well as the crew of the Diamond Princess, offer our sincere condolences."

Japan has begun allowing passengers who test negative to disembark from the ship. Canadian passengers who had tested negative for coronavirus were taken to a charter plane at Tokyo's international airport, which took off Thursday. It is expected to arrive at CFB Trenton in Ontario early Friday morning. The passengers will then be taken to the NAV Canada Training Institute in Cornwall, Ont., where they will be placed in quarantine for up to 14 days. 

WATCH | Canadian passengers get ready to leave Japan:

CBC's Saša Petricic reports from Japan as Canadians leave ship


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More than 200 Canadian passengers leave quarantined Diamond Princess ship and head home to Canada. 1:29

The ship was carrying about 3,700 people when quarantined on Feb. 3, about half of them from Japan. Japanese passengers were permitted to go home once cleared to leave; other countries are flying passengers home and keeping them isolated on arrival.

Japan, which is due to host the Summer Olympics in July, had faced criticism over its strategy of quarantining people on board the ship. Its National Institute of Infectious Diseases published data that it said supported its strategy, showing that the onset of symptoms from confirmed cases had peaked on Feb. 7 and tailed off to zero by Feb. 15.

The NIID report was "very reassuring," said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist from Kobe University Hospital who had been one of the harshest critics of the quarantine.

With files from CBC News