BANGKOK — China prepared to close temporary hospitals while South Korea struggled to find enough beds for its sick Wednesday as the virus epidemic that began in Asia increasingly troubled the West.
“We have entered a phase that will last weeks and, undoubtedly, months,” said President Emmanuel Macron of France, where more than 200 people were infected.
As new cases were dropping in worst-hit China, worrisome clusters were growing sharply in South Korea, Italy and Iran, which each exceed 2,000 cases. Italy newly surpassed Iran with the most deaths outside China, with 79 as of Tuesday.
World Health Organization leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said though the virus caused more serious illness and death than the flu, data suggests it’s not as easy to catch.
“People are afraid and uncertain. Fear is a natural human response to any threat,” Tedros said. “But as we get more data, we are understanding this virus and the disease it causes more and more.”
In Daegu, the South Korean city at the centre of that country’s outbreak, a shortage of hospital space meant about 2,300 patients were being cared for in other facilities while they awaited a hospital bed.
“I feel assured that we can absolutely overcome this situation,” said Prime Minister Chung Se-Kyun in a meeting about quarantine strategies in Daegu.
China reported 119 new cases Wednesday, all but five in the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan. In a sign of the shifting threat, Beijing’s health commissioner said two new cases in the Chinese capital were apparently infected abroad, in Iran and Italy.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, was expected to gradually shut down its hastily built temporary hospitals, where thousands of beds were empty.
“We believe this decline is real,” WHO outbreak expert Maria Van Kerkhove said of China. The country has reported 80,270 infections and 2,981 fatalities. It has about 85% of the world’s cases and 95% of deaths from the COVID-19 illness.
Italy’s death toll rose sharply Tuesday, with 45, mostly in the northern region of Lombardy where its outbreak has been concentrated.
Fear over the virus’ spread led even the Vatican to insist Pope Francis was not infected. He became ill last week, but the Vatican said Francis only had a cold.
The outbreak was blamed for market instability around the globe. Asian stock markets were mixed Wednesday after Wall Street continued its zigzag performance, despite an interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Business of all types were experiencing pain as travel and tourism were spurned and worried consumers changed their habits.
“People are afraid to touch anything or take anything from us,” said Maedeh Jahangiri, a perfume seller at an upscale mall in the Iranian capital of Tehran. “Everyone is at a loss.”
Iran has counted 2,336 cases of the virus, reportedly even infecting at least 23 members of parliament.
Spain had dozens of health workers quarantined or being monitored after at least five were infected with the new virus. In France, the government requisitioned all current and future stocks of protective masks to ensure they go to health workers and patients. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned cases could spread, unveiling a 25-page plan for a worst-case scenario in which retired doctors and nurses are called back to work and police could stop investigating minor crimes to help deal with an outbreak.
“We’re committed to doing everything possible … to prepare for all eventualities,” Johnson said.
In the U.S., nine people have died, all in and around Seattle, Washington, where there was fear a statewide total of 27 infections could drastically rise. The U.S. overall had more than 120 cases.
The U.S. Army increased screenings of recruits arriving for basic training. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were expected to finalize an agreement Wednesday on a $7.5 billion emergency bill to fund work on a virus vaccine and other measures.
Hinnant reported in Paris. Contributors include Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Ken Moritsugu in Beijing and Maria Cheng in London.
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