The U.S. State Department is evacuating personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, China, as the deadly outbreak of coronavirus continues to spread.
The agency was in the process Saturday of chartering a plane to ferry out about three dozen diplomats and their families, CNN reported. The flight will be free for State Department employees, but would also be open to any other Americans who wish to pay.
There are about 1,000 Americans living in the city, CNN said.
The State Department is warning citizens not to travel to Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.
Meanwhile, officials in Hong Kong declared an emergency and closed schools until at least mid-February, announcing at least five cases in the city.
The city will also ban direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam told The Associated Press. The city in central China is at the epicenter of the outbreak and is most of the 54 deaths and 1,975 cases of coronavirus occurred. The new numbers released Sunday in China amounted to an increase by nearly 700 cases in 24 hours.
China’s leader on Saturday called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak’s epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to contain the illness.
Authorities in Beijing announced on Saturday that they are also restricting travel, the New York Times reported. All inter-province buses to Beijing will be halted Sunday, and all overseas tours and hotel and flight packages in the city would be banned starting Monday. Tours already in progress will be allowed to continue, according to the association for China’s travel agencies, but tour companies were warned to closely monitor the health of visitors.
The city had already canceled large celebrations of the Lunar New Year. Millions of Chinese people had plans to travel across the country for the holiday, which begins Saturday.
A Level 1 public health alert, is the highest emergency level, has been declared in most of China’s provinces and cities.
The city of Wuhan is scrambling to build two 1,000-bed hospitals exclusively to treat coronavirus patients. Officials there had previously announced the construction of one hospital, and on Saturday said they would build another one.
While the vast majority of cases have been in Wuhan, the virus has spread to other parts of China and several other countries. Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases on Saturday and a third was reported in Japan, according to the AP. A second case was confirmed Friday in the U.S. and three in France, the first for Europe.
Isolated cases of coronavirus has also been reported in several other countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Nepal, Macau and Taiwan. Every person infected had recently traveled to Wuhan, according to Newsweek.
A Toronto hospital said Saturday it has a confirmed case of the deadly virus from China, Canada’s first.
Public health agencies and private drug companies are working to develop a vaccine against the virus, USA Today reported. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the newspaper that a vaccine could be created soon.
“The agency has the funding and technology,” Fauci said. “Barring any bureaucratic or regulatory holdups, which I don’t think will happen, we can almost certainly get into phase one in three months.”
More than 35 million people in Wuhan and 12 other cities in China continue to be under quarantine by the government in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Travel has been halted to and from those cities. Wuhan has also banned cars in its downtown in an attempt to encourage people to stay home.
The latest person infected in the U.S. is in Orange County, California, the AP reported.
The agency noted that “it is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks.”
The CDC was monitoring 63 other potential cases of coronavirus in 22 states, CNBC reported.
“CDC believes the immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time, but the situation is evolving rapidly,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a Friday morning conference call with reporters.
At least two U.S. universities said last week that they had a student suspected of having coronavirus. Officials at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, said Thursday night that a student there had “very mild symptoms” of the disease. On Friday, the university said the student had tested negative for coronavirus.
Texas A&M University officials also said a student there may be infected. As of Saturday morning, the university had not posted an update on the student’s condition. Medical supply stores near the university, located about 95 miles northwest of Houston, sold out of medical masks, according to CNN.
This virus, which is from the same family as the SARS virus, has sickened nearly 2,000 people since the outbreak began in late December. It’s a new form of coronavirus never seen in people before, which left health officials scrambling to create testing and treatment protocols.
On Thursday, the AP said, police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded the train station in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, where the outbreak is thought to have originated.
In addition to train service, authorities shut down the airport and canceled hundreds of flights. Ferry, bus and subway services were halted. Officials ordered theaters, internet cafes and other entertainment centers to close. The threat of the virus even forced the closure of Disneyland in Shanghai on Saturday.
People trying to drive out of the area have found blocked roads and health workers were taking motorists’ temperatures at toll booths, the Washington Post reported.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told the AP in an interview at WHO’s Beijing office. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”
The World Health Organization held a second emergency meeting Thursday to decide whether to declare a global health crisis over the outbreak of the mysterious new virus but decided it was too early to take such action, AP reported. Similar emergencies have been declared in the past for the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo and the Zika virus in 2016.
To be declared a public health emergency of international concern, the outbreak must be an “extraordinary event” with a risk of “international spread” that requires a “coordinated international response,” according to the BBC.
Residents in Wuhan stripped supermarket shelves and overwhelmed gas stations, the Post reported. Pharmacies sold out of face masks, residents said.
Social media posts said hospitals in Wuhan were turning people away.