China health officials say coronavirus death toll now 26, lockdown covers 25 million

Click to play video: '20 million in China under lockdown as coronavirus spreads' 20 million in China under lockdown as coronavirus spreads
WATCH: 20 million in China under lockdown as coronavirus spreads – Jan 23, 2020

BEIJING — China broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass around 25 million people Friday to try to contain a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds, though the measures’ potential for success is uncertain.

At least eight cities have been shut down —- Wuhan, Ezhou, Huanggang, Chibi, Qianjiang, Zhijiang, Jingmen and Xiantao — all in central China’s Hubei province, where the illness has been concentrated.

Wuhan, which has the majority of cases, also announced Friday that it will build a designated hospital with space for 1,000 beds in the style of a facility that Beijing constructed during the SARS epidemic. The hospital will be erected on a 25,000 square-meter lot and is slated for completion Feb. 3, municipal authorities said.

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The lockdown began early Thursday in Wuhan, where normally bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were eerily quiet. Masks were mandatory in public. Train stations, the airport and subways were closed; police checked incoming vehicles but did not close off roads.

The seven other cities under lockdown as of Friday morning are near Wuhan, but authorities were taking precautions around the country. In the capital, Beijing, major public events were canceled indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations. The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rose to 830, the National Health Commission said Friday morning. Twenty-six people have died.

Click to play video: 'Wuhan goes into ‘unprecedented’ lockdown as coronavirus spreads' Wuhan goes into ‘unprecedented’ lockdown as coronavirus spreads
Wuhan goes into ‘unprecedented’ lockdown as coronavirus spreads – Jan 23, 2020

The first deaths outside Hubei were confirmed. The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died after returning from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives. Heilongjiang in the northeast also said one person died in the province, but did not give further details.

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The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or people with connections the city. Outside the mainland, cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macao, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

READ MORE: Demand for face masks on the rise amid coronavirus outbreak — but are they effective?

Many countries are screening travelers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

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The World Health Organization decided against declaring the outbreak a global emergency for now. The declaration can increase resources to fight a threat but that can also cause trade and travel restrictions and other economic damage, making the decision politically fraught.

Click to play video: 'Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus' Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus
Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus – Jan 23, 2020

The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”

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Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns of the cities will last. While sweeping measures are typical of China’s Communist Party-led government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people’s liberties. And the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.

READ MORE: ‘Too early’ to declare China coronavirus a global health emergency: WHO

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

“Until there’s a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it’s not an unreasonable thing to do,” he said. “Anything that limits people’s travels during an outbreak would obviously work.”

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But Ball cautioned that any such quarantine should be strictly time-limited. He added: “You have to make sure you communicate effectively about why this is being done. Otherwise you will lose the goodwill of the people.”

Click to play video: 'Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus' Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus
Wuhan stops outbound flights, trains to fight virus – Jan 23, 2020

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which is thought to have originated from camels.

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The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak late last month were connected to a seafood market, and experts suspect transmission began from wild animals sold there. The market is closed for investigation.

READ MORE: Where China’s coronavirus has spread to so far

Associated Press researcher Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.

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