January 31, 2020 / 11:06 AM / a month ago

Surge in virus infections stokes fear in cities flanking China's Wuhan

BEIJING (Reuters) - A jump in infections in two Chinese cities flanking Wuhan, the epicenter of a rapidly-spreading virus epidemic, is fuelling fear that new hot spots are emerging in a province where strict transport curbs have already brought most activity to a halt.

People who arrived from Hubei province wait near a checkpoint at Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

China’s central province of Hubei has been the site of almost 60% of infections, as well as more than 95% of deaths, in an episode the World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency.

But the province’s two cities of Huanggang and Xiaogan, with combined populations of more than 12 million, have racked up more than 11% of global infections and deaths.

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As the virus in these cities spreads faster than in Wuhan itself and other sites outside a lockdown zone, the first dismissal of a senior health official in Hubei has spurred authorities to push for more effective measures.

“Medical supplies are in very short supply,” provincial governor Wang Xiaodong said. “Not only are there shortages in Wuhan and surrounding cities, but they are generally severely deficient in other parts of the province.”

Conditions in Huanggang, which had reported 573 infections and 12 deaths, are particularly severe, he warned in remarks on Wednesday, urging every effort to keep the city from becoming a second Wuhan.

Tang Zhihong, the head of Huanggang’s health commission, was dismissed on Thursday after state television broadcast images that showed her unable to respond to questions about the number of hospital beds and patients in the city.

Huanggang had insufficient screening procedures for suspected cases, slow testing processes and lack of testing personnel, inspectors from China’s central government has found.

By Wednesday, its tally of suspected cases exceeded 1,000.

Both cities have been all but locked down since public transport was banned last week and traffic blockades were set up to limit people’s movement.

Quarantine measures can be effective, but may have a negative impact, medical experts have warned.

“The lockdown may hamper the delivery of medical and other essential supplies to the region,” said Sanjaya Senanayake, a professor of medicine at the Australian National University.

“People within the lockdown zone may lose trust in authorities,” he said, adding that fear of coronavirus infection could deter even those with other illnesses from going to hospital.

To the northwest of Wuhan is Xiaogan, the third-largest center of the outbreak, which has reported more than 540 cases and nine deaths and saw a rise of 35% in cases on Thursday from the previous day, versus 16% in Wuhan.

By Friday, there were 9,692 infections in China and 213 deaths, including 5,806 cases and 204 deaths in Hubei, national health authorities said.

Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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