COVID-19: U.S. death toll rises to 6 while outbreak surges in South Korea

The latest:

  • WHO chief says number of new cases in China continues to decline, with most new cases still in Hubei province.
  • Outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are ‘our greatest concern,’ WHO director says.
  • More than 89,000 cases of COVID-19 reported around the world with more than 3,000 dead.
  • U.S. death toll rises to 6.
  • Ontario reports 3 new cases, bringing the total in Canada to 27. Public health officials here say risk from coronavirus low.
  • WATCH: Infectious disease expert talks about COVID-19 and the possibility of more cases in Canada.

South Korea’s viral outbreak surged and millions of children in Japan stayed home from school Monday as officials wrestled with the epidemic in more than 60 countries.

The number of new virus cases in China dropped to its lowest level in six weeks Monday and hundreds of patients at the outbreak’s epicentre were being released from hospital, while a grimmer reality set in elsewhere, with swelling infection numbers and growing dread that no area could fend off the illness.

China, where the epidemic began in December, reported 202 new cases on the mainland over the previous 24 hours, with another 42 deaths. That brings the country’s total number of cases to 80,026 with 2,912 deaths recorded in all. The city of Wuhan accounted for most of the new cases, but also saw 2,570 patients released.

China still has about three-fourths of the world’s nearly 89,000 cases worldwide, but outbreaks were surging in other countries. More than 3,000 people have died worldwide.

While the virus has caused serious illness mainly for the elderly and those with existing health problems, most have had mild illness and some infected apparently show no symptoms at all. But attempts to contain the spread of the virus — for which there is no vaccine or cure — have been far-reaching.

Major cities including Jakarta, New York and Berlin grappled with their first recorded cases. Schools emptied across Japan, mobile hospitals were planned in Iran, and the Mona Lisa, accustomed to droves of staring tourists, hung in a vacant room of the shuttered Louvre in Paris.

“Just about everywhere, the cases are rising quite quickly in a number of countries,” said Ian Mackey, who studies viruses at the University of Queensland in Australia. More than 60 countries around the world — including nine of the 10 most populous — have found infections. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said on Monday the epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are “our greatest concern.” 

The question of whether containment is possible has been debated, but Tedros reiterated his message urging countries to try and contain the virus, pointing to efforts in China and information out of South Korea indicating that cases there appeared to mostly be tied to five known case clusters.

“We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures,” Tedros said. 

Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist in Toronto, said it’s still the early stages of the outbreak.

WATCH | Dr. Michael Gardam says outbreak still in early stages:

All the signs suggest the world is heading toward a pandemic, says Dr. Michael Gardam, chief of staff at Humber River Hospital. 0:40

“While we have seen decreasing cases being reported out of China, we now have new epicentres of this in multiple parts of the world.”

Gardam told CBC News it’s unlikely that most countries would be able to introduce the sort of control measures China used — which included a quarantine of the sprawling city of Wuhan — to try and contain the virus.

The infectious disease doctor said the spread of the disease is being slowed, but cautioned that slowing the spread is different than stopping it completely.

Mike Ryan, director of the Geneva-based health agency’s emergencies program, reiterated that message, saying even as experts argue about how best to label and handle the outbreak, the WHO believes continued effort at containment will help save lives and protect health systems.

WATCH | WHO’s Mike Ryan talks about the impact of COVID-19 on health systems:

Countries with robust health care systems can lack an abundance of intensive care resources and personnel, WHO says 1:02

Even countries with sophisticated health systems have limited intensive care capacity, Ryan said.

“Most countries will struggle if they start to see large numbers of patients requiring intensive care,” he said. “All countries are going to have to think very carefully about how they manage the critical care component of this disease.”

Read on for a look at what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada, as well as some of the harder-hit nations around the world.

Here’s what’s happening in Canada

Health officials say four new coronavirus cases in Ontario were travel-related and not spread within the community. 2:04

Ontario reported three new cases of the novel coronavirus on Monday, bringing the total in the province to 18.

The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, is expected to provide details about the new cases at a news conference Monday afternoon. 

There are an additional eight cases in B.C. and one in Quebec.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which is working with the provinces to prepare for a possible outbreak, says the risk in Canada associated with COVID-19 is low. 

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S.

An ambulance transports a patient from a long-term care facility linked to two of three confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington state in the U.S. (David Ryder/Reuters)

The number of coronavirus deaths in the United States rose to six on Monday — all in Washington state.

The first two U.S. deaths were announced on the weekend. Both were men with existing health problems who had been hospitalized. One was a man in his 70s from a nursing facility near Seattle where dozens of sick people were tested for the virus, Washington state health officials said.

Health officials announced on Monday afternoon that four more people had died. The deaths all happened in King County (which includes Seattle) and the adjoining Snohomish County.

Researchers said earlier the virus may have been circulating for weeks undetected in Washington state — where there have been a total of 18 confirmed cases as of Monday.

There are 91 confirmed or presumed coronavirus cases in the U.S., across 10 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number includes 45 people who were repatriated to the U.S. from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, as well as three people who were evacuated from Wuhan. 

New cases among California health workers and in New York, Rhode Island and Washington raised concerns on both U.S. coasts.

Here’s what’s happening in South Korea

A disinfection professional, wearing protective gear, sprays antiseptic solution on escalator handles at a department store in Seoul on Monday to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Chung Sung-jun/Getty Images)

The surging outbreak in South Korea’s fourth-largest city has overwhelmed its health system despite the national government sending assistance. The problem in Daegu has been highlighted by at least four deaths of infected elderly people who were waiting to be hospitalized.

Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice-health minister, said hospitals’ capacities from now on will be reserved for patients with serious symptoms or pre-existing medical conditions, while mild cases will be isolated at designated facilities outside hospitals.

South Korea on Monday had 476 new cases for a total of 4,212. Twenty-two people have died.

Here’s what’s happening in Japan

Two students do self-study at an elementary school where the facility was opened for children who cannot stay at home alone while their parents are at work, in Saitama, Japan on Monday. (Kyodo/Reuters)

In Japan on Monday, many schools began following through on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to close for more than a month through the end of the Japanese academic year.

Japan on Monday confirmed at least 15 new coronavirus cases, bringing the number of cases in the country to 976, including passengers infected by the pathogen on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Kyodo newswire reported.

Here’s what’s happening at the United Nations

At UN headquarters in New York, officials are reviewing all upcoming international gatherings on a case-by-case basis. 

A major summit on women’s rights, for example, has been reduced from two weeks to one day, following a recommendation from the UN Secretary General on Monday. 

Some 12,000 people had been expected to attend the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March but those numbers are now in doubt as the virus spreads. New York City confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Sunday. 

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

Medical equipment and coronavirus testing kits provided by the World Health Organization are pictured at the al-Maktum International Airport in Dubai on Monday as it is readied for a flight to Iran. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Middle East, a worsening situation in Iran was accompanied by concern for its top leaders after a member of the council that advises Iran’s supreme leader died of COVID-19.

Iran on Monday reported 1,501 cases of the virus and 66 deaths. 

The WHO chief said Monday that a staff member in its Iran office has tested positive for COVID-19 and had a mild disease.

“We will have two difficult weeks ahead,” said Ali Raibiei, a spokesperson for the Iranian government, which has faced questions about its reporting after local officials provided different numbers to media outlets.

Rabiei said separately that a closure of Iran’s schools, which was announced on Saturday because of the outbreak, would continue through the end of this week, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from the coronavirus outside China, where the outbreak began. Ryan, of the WHO, said his organization doesn’t believe countries are being non-transparent in their reporting around the disease.

“It’s very easy to get behind the curve,” he said, pointing to the challenges of getting a sense of what is unfolding in the early stages of an outbreak. “The real question is how quickly you catch up.”

The World Health Organization says it’s easy to miss early signs of an infectious disease outbreak. 1:22

A WHO team arrived in Iran on Monday afternoon to offer support to the government and to deliver supplies, WHO said.

Saudi Arabia, which announced last week that it was closing holy sites to foreign pilgrims in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19, reported its first case on Monday.

Here’s what’s happening in Europe

Tourists wearing protective masks as a protection against the coronavirus visit the Milan Cathedral on Monday. The Duomo reopened for the first time since the coronavirus crisis hit parts of northern Italy. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy has risen by 18 over the past 24 hours to 52, the Civil Protection Agency said on Monday. The number of cases in the country that has been hardest hit by the virus in Europe totalled 2,036, up from 1,694 on Sunday.

The head of the agency said that of those originally infected, 149 people had recovered.

The contagion came to light 10 days ago and is focused mainly on a handful of hotspots in the north of Italy, with isolated cases reported in many other regions.The U.S. issued an advisory against travel to the region of northern Italy where its outbreak is concentrated. Global Affairs Canada says travellers to northern Italy should “exercise a high degree of caution.” 

In France, disappointed crowds huddled under umbrellas outside the Louvre Museum on Monday as it remained closed. On Saturday, the French government banned any indoor gatherings larger than 5,000 people to prevent the spread of coronavirus — so Louvre workers have said that should apply to their workplace, too.

About 250 Louvre workers, mainly those who guard the treasured artworks or greet visitors, voted Monday to stay off the job until management presents a clearer plan of how it’s dealing with the virus threat, said Andre Sacristin, a Louvre employee and union representative for its staffers.

France has 191 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the head of France’s public health service said on Monday, and three people have died.

British health authorities said Monday there had been four more confirmed cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 40. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer of England, said the four new patients had recently travelled from Italy.

Here’s what’s happening in Russia

A Russian citizen returning from Italy was diagnosed with coronavirus, the RIA news agency cited the health-care ministry as saying on Monday. Another three Russian nationals are receiving treatment in Russia after they contracted the virus on a cruise ship in Japan, authorities have said.

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