Coronavirus: WHO says COVID-19 outbreak is a pandemic

The latest:

  • WHO describes outbreak as a pandemic as case numbers top 118,000 in 114 countries.
  • Italy reports more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 630 deaths.
  • U.S. case reports top 1,000, Trump promises relief package.
  • Trudeau announces $1-billion fund for COVID-19 response.
  • Read more about how Canadians are being urged to help ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19.

The coronavirus outbreak that has infected thousands of people in more than 100 countries is a pandemic, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, made the announcement as the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus rose to more than 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Tedros said. “It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

“This is not just a public-health crisis,” he said, reiterating his message for countries to prepare and move forward with a broad, co-ordinated response. 

“We should double down and we should be more aggressive,” given the increasing case numbers, Tedros said — through he reiterated that containment should be a “major pillar” of plans to combat COVID-19.

He encouraged countries to find and test every case, prepare hospitals and co-operate.

“This is everybody’s business,” he said.

The WHO labelled the outbreak that first emerged in China as a global health emergency of international concern in late January. The outbreak was first reported in China, which has seen the bulk of the world’s cases. But as cases spread around the world, the outbreak has caused massive disruptions to daily life in places like Italy and Iran.

Dr. Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s emergencies program, said Iran and Italy are on the front line of the outbreak now — but he cautioned that other countries will soon be dealing with larger case numbers.

“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” Ryan said.

Italy weighed imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions in financial relief Wednesday to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus, its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving health crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.

“There have to be very strong efforts made to suppress infection,” Ryan said, noting that it would — at a minimum — slow the spread and ease the burden on health systems.

This is a breaking news update. More to come.

Expanding clusters of the new coronavirus were eyed warily Wednesday as the outbreak upended daily life and reshaped everything from the presidential race in the United States to Pope Francis’s travel.

In the U.S., the caseload passed 1,000, and outbreaks on both sides of the country were stirring alarm, while in Europe, an increasingly locked-down Italy counted more than 10,000 infections and recorded soaring deaths among its aging population.

“Right now, the epicentre — the new China — is Europe,” said Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rome’s usual boisterous hum was reduced to a whisper as Italy’s 62 million people were told to mostly stay home. Though shops, cafes and restaurants remained open, police around the country were enforcing rules that customers stay one metre apart and certain businesses shutter by 6 p.m.

Authorities said 631 people have died of COVID-19 in Italy, with an increase of 168 fatalities recorded Tuesday. The health crisis was dealing a serious blow to the country’s economy — the third-largest of the 19 countries using the euro — and threatened instability worldwide.

Markets across Asia dropped Wednesday despite Wall Street’s gains a day earlier. Investors seemed encouraged by promises by U.S. President Donald Trump of a relief package to cushion economic pain from the outbreak. Governments around Asia and elsewhere have also announced billions of dollars in stimulus funds, including packages revealed in Japan on Tuesday and Australia on Wednesday.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 119,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,200 have died.

The virus has disrupted travel, closed schools and halted manufacturing in places around the globe. Here’s a look at what’s happening in Canada, the U.S. and some of the hard-hit regions around the world.

Here’s what’s happening in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau breaks down the $1-billion fund to help Canadians cope with the spread of COVID-19. 2:41

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while Canada hasn’t seen a “drastic spike” in coronavirus cases, the government needs to ensure it’s ready for “all scenarios.”

On Wednesday, he announced a $1-billion fund to help tackle COVID-19 and deal with the economic impact of the virus.

The fund — which includes money toward public education campaigns and research — will also be used to buy supplies for health-care workers.

According to a statement, $500 million will go to provinces and territories for “critical health-care system needs and to support mitigation efforts as needed.” 

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said federal and provincial health authorities are preparing for a “range of scenarios” but that Canadians can take steps to slow the spread of the Covid-19. She spoke during a press conference where the federal government announcement $1B fund to respond to the disease. 2:08

“This could include help to support with access to testing, acquisition of equipment, and to enhance surveillance and monitoring.” 

Ottawa is also providing support to workers who have been put under quarantine or told to self-isolate by waiving the one-week waiting period for employment insurance.

“No one should have to worry about their job if they have to be quarantined,” he said, and no employer should feel they have to lay off a worker because of the virus.

“We need to make sure that everyone is given the tools they need,” Trudeau said, later adding that Ottawa is ready to do more as needed.

The Public Agency of Canada, which has been continually assessing the risk from the outbreak, says that the risk to the general population in Canada is low, but notes “this could change rapidly.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has noted that some people face an increased risk.

As of Wednesday morning, Canada has reported 101 cases of COVID-19, including:

Ontario reported five of those cases as resolved, which means they are “no longer infectious based on two consecutive negative tests.” B.C. says four of its cases are resolved.

Health officials in Canada have reported one death linked to COVID-19 — a man in his 80s who lived at a long-term care facility in B.C.

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S.

In the U.S., dozens of cases were being tied to a conference in Boston, and leaders in multiple states were announcing curbs on large events. Colleges around the country emptied their classrooms as they moved to online instruction and uncertainty surrounded the upcoming opening of the Major League Baseball season and college basketball’s championships. Even the famed buffets of Las Vegas were affected, with some of the Strip’s biggest being closed in a precautionary measure.

“It’s terrifying,” said Silvana Gomez, a student at Harvard University, where undergraduates were told to leave campus by Sunday. “I’m definitely very scared right now about what the next couple days, the next couple weeks look like.”

New York’s governor said National Guard troops would scrub public places and deliver food to a suburb where infections have spiked. In Washington state, where a Seattle-area nursing home was the centre of an outbreak, officials said the virus had spread to at least 10 other long-term care facilities. In California, thousands of restless passengers remained stuck aboard a cruise ship, waiting for their turn to disembark to begin quarantines.

Two men vying to take on Trump in the U.S. presidential election abruptly cancelled rallies Tuesday and left open the possibility that future campaign events could be impacted, too. Trump’s campaign insisted it would proceed as normal, though Vice-President Mike Pence conceded future rallies would be evaluated “on a day to day basis.”

Here’s what’s happening in Italy and Europe

Italy’s lockdown measures to try to beat the coronavirus are reducing its economic output by around 10 per cent to 15 per cent, Lorenzo Codogno, a former Italian Treasury chief economist, said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte unexpectedly expanded the so-called red zone to the entire country on Monday night, introducing the most severe controls on a Western nation.

Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in his private library as the Vatican implemented Italy’s drastic coronavirus lockdown measures, barred the general public from St. Peter’s Square and took precautions to limit the spread of infections in the tiny city-state.

A man in protective gear gives a fact sheet of the coronavirus to a driver arriving from Italy at a border crossing near Matrei am Brenner, Austria, on Wednesday. Austria is turning away people arriving from Italy, except those with a doctor’s certificate. Freight is still being allowed in and any Austrians arriving will also be admitted but will need to submit to quarantine. (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

The Vatican representative to East Timor said a visit by Pope Francis has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Monsignor Marco Sprizzi of the Apostolic Nunciature told reporters in Dili that Francis had previously indicated his willingness to visit East Timor later this year. But Sprizzi cited concerns about large crowds, saying “because he did not want his people affected by the coronavirus, he cancelled his visit.”

Italy isn’t the only country in Europe dealing with a growing number of cases of COVID-19.

  • Spain: Spain’s ministry of health on Wednesday reported more than 2,100 cases with 47 deaths.
  • Germany:  Germany on Wednesday confirmed its third death related to the coronavirus as another patient in the badly affected district of Heinsberg in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia died, local authorities said. Germany has reported 1,296 cases of the virus, according to figures released by the Robert Koch Institute for disease control late on Tuesday.   
  • France: France’s health ministry was reporting 1,784 cases as of Tuesday, with more than 30 deaths.
  • United Kingdom: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus across the U.K. has risen to 456, up 
    from 373 a day earlier, the health ministry said on Wednesday. The number of patients who died after testing positive for the virus remained unchanged at six.

Poland is closing all schools, universities, cinemas, theatres and museums for two weeks from Thursday to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, government representatives said on Wednesday. Poland has confirmed 26 cases of coronavirus, but looking at how fast the virus spreads in some other European countries, the government decided to take the preventive action, they said.

Swiss customs authorities have shut down nine border crossings with Italy, the epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak, to channel border traffic through seven other sites.

The move announced Wednesday follows a decision by Italian authorities to continue to allow cross-border traffic with Switzerland despite adopting strong quarantine measures across Italy. Neighbours Austria and Slovenia have barred travellers from Italy without a medical certificate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a rare, hastily convened news conference Wednesday in Berlin that it’s important for European leaders to discuss “what are good and effective measures and what aren’t.” She said “we in Germany, in any case, are of the opinion that border closures are not an appropriate response to the challenge.”

Here’s what’s happening in Iran and the Middle East

Iran said Wednesday that the novel coronavirus killed 63 more people, raising the death toll to 354 amid over 9,000 cases in the Islamic Republic.

Across the Mideast, the vast majority of the 9,000 people who have contracted the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes are in hard-hit Iran. Outside the Islamic Republic, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Mideast.

A civil defence worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant in Baghdad’s main market as a precaution against the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. (Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press)

In Bahrain, authorities say the number of confirmed cases on Wednesday spiked by nearly 70 per cent to 189. The new cases were all on a returning flight of Bahraini evacuees from Iran.

Officials found 77 on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus, compared to the 112 already reported in the island country off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Here’s what’s happening in China

In China, where the novel virus first cropped up, officials said they’d counted only 24 new cases on Wednesday. In a reversal of positions, China is seeing new cases brought in from overseas.

WATCH: China’s coronavirus epicentre loosens some quarantine restrictions

Drop in new cases of COVID-19 permits work to resume for some in Wuhan. 0:25

In Beijing, the capital, all the new cases of COVID-19 reported on Wednesday came from outside the country, five from Italy and one from the United States. “The epidemic situation is at a low level and the prevention and control are continuously going well,” said Mi Feng, spokesperson for the National Health Commission.

Here’s what’s happening in South Korea and Japan

The other major outbreak site in Asia, South Korea, continued to report improving numbers, too, with 242 new cases announced Wednesday. Still, a cluster of infections connected to a call centre in one of the busiest areas of that country’s capital was raising alarms.

More than half of South Korea’s 51 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area.

So far, 93 people have tested positive among the call centre’s employees and their families, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Wednesday in a briefing broadcast over YouTube. The number could grow as tests are being done on more than 550 co-workers who worked on other floors of the Korea Building in Seoul’s Guro district.

Health workers in white protective suits scrambled to sanitize the nearby Sindorim subway station, which is used by more than 404,000 commuters per day, according to Seoul Metro.

Disinfection workers wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution against the coronavirus in a subway at Seoul metro railway base on Wednesday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

While most of the infected workers live in Seoul, some of them commute from nearby cities such as Incheon and Bucheon, raising concern about a broader spread through public transit.

Call centre workers may be vulnerable because they work long hours in crowded and confined spaces, said Yoon Tae-ho, an official from South Korea’s health ministry.

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it would be difficult to track infections if they spread to buses and subways. She said it’s “most critical” that public transit operators vigorously sanitize handles, bars and anything passengers frequently touch with the threat of local transmissions growing.

Park said Seoul is investigating the working conditions of more than 400 call centres in the city and will push employers to allow more employees to work from home. The mayor said authorities were responding actively to prevent the cluster from intensifying like South Korea’s earlier clusters around the southeastern city of Daegu.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in some other areas as COVID-19 spreads

Dr. Samir Gupta says Canada is doing more testing and seeing more cases, but the health-care system can manage, so far. 6:18
  • India ramped up travel restrictions and closed a border with neighbouring Myanmar to counter the coronavirus outbreak, as countries across South Asia reported a rise in cases on Wednesday.

  • In Afghanistan, the number of confirmed cases rose to seven from four, the country’s health ministry said.

  • Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa hit by the epidemic to seven.

  • Indonesia says a foreigner has become its first fatality from COVID-19. Achmad Yurianto, the government spokesperson on efforts to contain the coronavirus, said Wednesday the 53-year-old woman had diabetes and lung disease and had contracted the virus abroad.

  • Honduras has confirmed the first two cases of the novel coronavirus in its territory, the health ministry said.

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