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By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The number of reported new cases of coronavirus in China’s Hubei province rose on Monday after two days of falls, as authorities imposed tough new restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of the disease which has now killed more than 1,700 people.
The tighter lockdown on the central province where the flu-like virus originated in December came as American passengers were taken off a cruise liner on Sunday to fly home after being quarantined for two weeks off Japan.
Seventy new coronavirus cases were confirmed on board the Diamond Princess where 3,700 passengers and crew have been held since Feb. 3. Some 355 people on board have tested positive for the disease, by far the largest cluster of cases outside China.
Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow soon, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.
“Leaving in a few hours. No details. Might be going to Texas or Nebraska,” Gay Courter, one of the American passengers on board, told Reuters. She said she expected to spend another two weeks in quarantine on U.S. soil.
In Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, health officials reported 1,933 new cases and 100 new deaths on Feb. 16, the lowest daily death count since Feb. 11.
The number of new cases rose nearly 5% from the previous day, but the number of deaths fell from 139.
Nearly 90% of the new cases were in the provincial capital of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people where the virus is believed to have originated at a market illegally trading wildlife.
The total number of cases in the province reached 58,182, with 1,696 deaths.
Chinese health officials on Sunday said two days of falls in the number of new confirmed cases showed their efforts to halt the spread of the virus were bearing fruit.
“The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” Mi Feng, spokesman for the Health Commission, told reporters.
Mi said the proportion of confirmed cases who were critically ill had fallen to 21.6% on Saturday, from 32.4% on Jan. 27. He said this showed the authorities were able to treat patients more quickly, preventing cases from becoming critical.
Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who traveled from Chinese cities, with five deaths.
Restrictions were tightened further in Hubei on Sunday with vehicles, apart from essential services, banned from the roads and companies told to stay shut until further notice.
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. But in some cities streets are still deserted. Many factories have yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains in China and beyond.
Trade-dependent Singapore on Monday downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast range to -0.5% to 1.5% from 0.5% to 2.5% previously as it braces for a hit from the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Britain’s University of Edinburgh, said it was too early to say the virus had peaked.
“It could simply be that reporting is not keeping up with events in circumstances where the health services are under enormous pressure,” he said.
On board the Diamond Princess, American passenger Matthew Smith posted a photo on Twitter showing a fleet of coaches parked on the shore to transport U.S. nationals. American officials in hazmat suits and face masks had visited his room to check if he would disembark. He said he wanted to stay.
The ship, owned by Carnival (NYSE:) Corp., has been held in the Japanese port of Yokohama with 3,700 passengers and crew on board. Those with the disease have been taken to hospital in Japan and no one from the ship has died. Around half of the guests onboard are from Japan.
Countries that have announced plans to fly their citizens home from the ship say they will take them only if they are symptom-free, and quarantine them on arrival.
Another cruise ship, Holland America’s MS Westerdam, docked in Cambodia on Thursday after being rejected by ports elsewhere. An 83-year-old American passenger tested positive upon arriving in Malaysia, authorities there said. A second test requested by the cruise operator confirmed the finding.
Taiwan reported its first fatality on Sunday. The first fatality in Europe was reported on Saturday, an 80-year-old Chinese man who died at a Paris hospital.