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COVID-19: Death toll exceeds 1,100 as China reports drop in new cases

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China on Wednesday reported another drop in the number of new cases of a viral infection and 97 more deaths, pushing the total dead past 1,100 as postal services worldwide said delivery was being affected by the cancellation of many flights to China.

The National Health Commission said 2,015 new cases had been reported over the last 24 hours, declining for a second day. The total number of cases in mainland China reached 44,653, although many experts say a large number of others infected have gone uncounted.

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The additional deaths raised the mainland toll to 1,113. Two people have died elsewhere, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.

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In the port city of Tianjin, just southeast of Beijing, a cluster of cases has been traced to a department store in Baodi district. One-third of Tianjin’s 104 confirmed cases are in Baodi, the Xinhua state news agency reported.

A salesperson working in the store’s small home appliance section became the first individual in the cluster to be diagnosed on Jan. 31, Xinhua said. The store was already closed at that point, then disinfected on Feb. 1. Nevertheless, several more diagnoses soon followed.

The next to have their infections confirmed were also salespeople at the store. They had not visited Wuhan recently and, with the exception of one married couple, the patients worked in different sections of the store and did not know one another, according to Xinhua.

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Japan’s Health Ministry said that 39 new cases have been confirmed on a cruise ship quarantined at Yokohama, bringing the total to 174 on the Diamond Princess.

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And in Singapore, the bank DBS on Wednesday cleared a downtown office and told some 300 employees to work from home after one of its staff was infected with the virus.

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“We are also currently conducting detailed contact tracing with all employees and other parties that the infected person may have come into contact with,” DBS said.

The U.S. Postal Service said that it was “experiencing significant difficulties” in dispatching letters, parcels and express mail to China, including Hong Kong and Macau.

Both the U.S. and Singapore Post said in notes to their global counterparts that they are no longer accepting items destined for China, “until sufficient transport capacity becomes available.”

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The Chinese mail service, China Post, said it was disinfecting postal offices, processing centers and vehicles to ensure the virus doesn’t spread via the mail and to protect staff.

It said the crisis is also impacting mail that transits China to other destinations including North Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The World Health Organization has named the disease caused by the virus as COVID-19, avoiding any animal or geographic designation to avoid stigmatization and to show the illness comes from a new coronavirus discovered in 2019.

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The illness was first reported in December and connected to a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak has largely been concentrated.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, said that while the virus outbreak in China may peak this month, the situation at the center of the crisis remains more challenging.

“We still need more time of hard working in Wuhan,” he said, describing the isolation of infected patients there a priority.

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“We have to stop more people from being infected,” he said. “The problem of human-to-human transmission has not yet been resolved.”

Without enough facilities to handle the number of cases, Wuhan has been building prefabricated hospitals and converting a gym and other large spaces to house patients and try to isolate them from others.

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China’s official media reported Tuesday that the top health officials in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have been relieved of their duties. No reasons were given, although the province’s initial response was deemed slow and ineffective. Speculation that higher-level officials could be sacked has simmered, but doing so could spark political infighting and be a tacit admission of responsibility.

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The virus outbreak has become the latest political challenge for the party and its leader, Xi Jinping, who despite accruing more political power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has struggled to handle crises on multiple fronts. These include a sharply slowing domestic economy, the trade war with the U.S. and pushback on China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies.

China is struggling to restart its economy after the annual Lunar New Year holiday was extended to try to curb the spread of the virus. About 60 million people are under virtual quarantine and many others are still working at home.

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In Hong Kong, the diagnosis of four people living in an apartment building prompted worried comparisons with the deadly SARS pandemic of 17 years ago.

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More than 100 people were evacuated from the building after a 62-year-old woman diagnosed with the virus was found living 10 floors directly below a man who was earlier confirmed with the virus.

Health officials called it a precautionary measure and sought to assuage fears of an epidemic, dismissing similarities to the SARS community outbreak at the Amoy Gardens housing estate in 2003.