Face masks sold out and officials at airports and train stations checked passengers for fevers as China on Tuesday sought to control the outbreak of a new virus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Anxiety grew both at home and abroad after Chinese government expert Zhong Nanshan confirmed fears on state television late Monday that the new type of coronavirus can spread from human to human.
The US on Tuesday reported its first case, saying a Washington state resident who returned last week from the outbreak’s epicenter was hospitalized near Seattle.
The stock prices of some companies that sell masks rose Tuesday, but markets fell in much of Asia as investors worried about the potential impact on tourism and the economy.
Concerned about a global outbreak similar to SARS, another coronavirus that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travelers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan, the central city where the virus appears to have originated.
Guards at Wuhan’s airport pointed electronic thermometers at travelers. Several online retailers were sold out of masks, which were being sold for more than 10 times their original price. Users of the popular Weibo social media platform urged others to wash their hands and stay home.
Outside the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where many of the coronavirus patients are receiving care, several workers were dressed in full-body biohazard suits, supplemented by goggles, masks and plastic wrapped around their shoes.
While many wore masks in Wuhan, streets were far from deserted and people appeared to be carrying on with their regular activities.
“I’m not that worried,” said Helen Cao, a Wuhan resident who was shopping on a downtown avenue lined with stores and full of pedestrians. Like many in the city, she began wearing a mask after hearing Zhong’s assessment of human-to-human transmission.
“Maybe people from other places are more concerned about our health, but (Wuhan) locals actually are continuing to eat, go out and take strolls, go clubbing at night,” Cao said. “Everything’s very normal, everyone’s just wearing masks, nothing more.”
Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.
The first cases late last month were connected to a seafood market, and transmission was thought to be occurring from animals to humans. Authorities previously had not confirmed human-to-human transmission.
In addition to 258 cases in Wuhan, more than 20 have been diagnosed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong province in the south and Zhejiang in the east. Four cases have been confirmed overseas among Chinese travelers in South Korea, Japan and Thailand. A Taiwanese businesswoman who just returned from Wuhan tested positive for the virus, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control reported Tuesday.
Fifteen medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said.
Two cases in Guangdong were people who had not visited Wuhan but fell ill after family members returned from there. Zhong cited those as evidence the disease had spread between humans.
Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US were among the countries increasing airport screenings. Three weekly direct flights from Wuhan to Sydney will be met by border security and biosecurity staff for assessments, chief Australian medical officer Brendan Murphy told reporters.