China expands lockdowns to 25M people to halt viral outbreak

People wear protective face masks on a bridge in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan 24, 2020. China closed off a city of more than 11 million people Thursday, halting transportation and warning against public gatherings, to try to stop the spread of a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

BEIJING (AP) — China broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass around 25 million people Friday to try to contain a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds, though the measures’ potential for success is uncertain.

At least eight cities have been shut down —- Wuhan, Ezhou, Huanggang, Chibi, Qianjiang, Zhijiang, Jingmen and Xiantao — all in central China’s Hubei province, where the illness has been concentrated.

In Wuhan, where the lockdown began early Thursday, normally bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were eerily quiet. Masks were mandatory in public. Train stations, the airport and subways were closed; police checked incoming vehicles but did not close off roads.

The seven other cities under lockdown as of Friday morning are near Wuhan, but authorities were taking precautions around the country. In the capital, Beijing, major public events were canceled indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations. The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rose to 830 with 25 deaths, the National Health Commission said Friday morning. The first death was also confirmed outside Hubei. The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died after returning from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives.

The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or people with connections the city. Outside the mainland, cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macao, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

Many countries are screening travelers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

The World Health Organization decided against declaring the outbreak a global emergency for now. The declaration can increase resources to fight a threat but that can also cause trade and travel restrictions and other economic damage, making the decision politically fraught.

The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”

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