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China’s virus center vows no patient unchecked as cases fall

This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows medical personnel walking among patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus resting at night in the temporary Fangcai Hospital set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. - The death toll from China's new coronavirus epidemic jumped past 2,000 on February 19 after 136 more people died, with the number of new cases falling for a second straight day, according to the National Health Commission. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
STR/AFP via Getty Images
Medical personnel worked among patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus resting at night in the temporary Fangcai Hospital set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province.

BEIJING — Inspectors in protective suits went door-to-door Wednesday in the epicenter of China’s viral outbreak to try to find every infected person in an epidemic that is showing signs of waning as new cases fell for a second straight day.

The city of Wuhan, where the new form of coronavirus emerged, was in the final day of a campaign to root out anyone with symptoms whom authorities may have missed so far.

“This must be taken seriously,’’ said Wang Zhonglin, the city’s newly minted Communist Party secretary, adding that “if a single new case is found’’ after Wednesday “the district leaders will be held responsible.’’

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His remarks were published on Hubei’s provincial website, alongside the declaration, “If the masses cannot mobilize, it’s impossible to fight a people’s war.”

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Mainland China reported 1,749 new cases and 136 additional deaths. While the overall spread of the virus has been slowing, the situation remains severe in Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan. More than 80 percent of the country’s 74,185 total cases are in Hubei and 95 percent of its 2,004 deaths, according to data from China’s National Health Commission.

Cities in Hubei with a combined population of more than 60 million have been under lockdown since the Lunar New Year holiday last month, usually the busiest time of the year for travel. Authorities put a halt to nearly all transportation and movement except for quarantine efforts, medical care, and delivery of food and basic necessities. “Wartime” measures were implemented in some places, with residents prevented from leaving their apartments.

The stringent measures have followed public fury over Hubei authorities’ handling of the outbreak when it began in December. The risk of human-to-human transmission was downplayed, and doctors who tried to warn the public were reprimanded by police. Wuhan residents reported overcrowding in hospitals and futile attempts to seek treatment.

Many countries have also set up border screenings and airlines have canceled flights to and from China to prevent further spread of the disease, which has been detected in about two dozen countries, with about 1,000 confirmed cases outside mainland China. Six deaths have been confirmed outside the mainland — two in Hong Kong and one each in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and France.

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On Wednesday, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported two deaths, both elderly Iranian citizens in the city of Qom, south of the capital, Tehran. No additional details were released.

China’s top diplomat, on a visit to Laos, assured his Southeast Asian counterparts that the situation in Hubei province and Wuhan has “been brought under effective control.”

Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ahead of an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the disease. Six countries in the 10-nation bloc have confirmed cases of the new virus.

In Hong Kong, the Hospital Authority reported a 70-year-old man had succumbed to the virus, the city’s second death out of 65 confirmed cases. The victim had underlying conditions including diabetes and hypertension, said Dr Lau Ka-hin, an authority official.

In Japan, passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess cruise ship after a much-criticized two-week on-board quarantine ended on Wednesday, with 79 more virus cases confirmed for a total of 621 — the most in any place outside of China.

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South Korea evacuated six South Koreans and a Japanese family member from the ship, and they began an additional 14-day quarantine Wednesday. More than 300 American passengers were evacuated earlier and are being quarantined in the United States, including at least 14 who had tested positive for the virus.

Outside Hubei, other localities in China have imposed quarantine measures to varying degrees. Residential neighborhoods in Beijing have placed limits on the number of people per household who can go out, and those who do must carry exit-entry cards. In Shanghai, police detained a man for 10 days for repeatedly leaving his house and taking public transportation when he was supposed to be under quarantine at home.

Despite such warnings, Beijing was showing signs of coming back to life this week, with road traffic at around a quarter of usual, up from virtually nothing a week ago. While most restaurants, stores, and office buildings remained closed, some had reopened.

China said it was expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters over a headline for an opinion column that referred to the current virus outbreak in China and called the country the “Real Sick Man of Asia.’’

In a statement Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Feb. 3 op-ed piece by Bard College professor Walter Russel Mead “smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting [the virus] epidemic.”

Long sensitive to its portrayal in global media, China has been pushing a narrative of transparency and tight control over the current outbreak, while emphasizing the sacrifices made by its health workers and ordinary citizens.