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China's Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses SARS Pandemic

A Chinese woman wears a protective suit and mask as she waits to cross the intersection of a nearly empty Beijing on Saturday.
Kevin Frayer
Getty Images
A Chinese woman wears a protective suit and mask as she waits to cross the intersection of a nearly empty Beijing on Saturday.

Updated at 10:26 p.m. ET

The coronavirus death toll has climbed to 811 in mainland China, according to Chinese health officials, a grim tally that surpasses the number of global fatalities recorded during the SARS epidemic between 2002 and 2003.

The figures reported by China's National Health Commission on Sunday (local time) exceeded the 774 deaths from SARS recorded worldwide by the World Health Organization.

More than 34,000 people in China have been confirmed as being infected with the virus, officials from the WHO said on Saturday.

A 60-year-old American, whose identity has not been released, is among those who have died after testing positive for the virus in what is believed to be the first U.S. citizen fatality since the epidemic began.

Most of new cases were found in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Officials said at least 288 other cases of the virus have been reported across two dozen other countries.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said a team of international experts has been assembled, with the goal of sending the first members of the team to China by early next week. He said he is hoping officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be part of the mission.

The announcement follows weeks of requests from the WHO and CDC to travel to the country to assist in investigating the virus.

Tedros said on Saturday that the Chinese government approved the international team's arrival in the country, but he would not comment on exactly who would be participating.

"The team leader will be leaving either Monday or Tuesday. That's what we're aiming at now. And the rest of the experts will follow after that," Tedros said.

Over the past four days, WHO officials have seen the number of newly confirmed cases stabilize.

"That's good news and may reflect the impact of the control measures that have been put in place. But remember, there are also lots of suspected cases still to be tested," said Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program.

WHO officials also stressed that it was not clear how many of the newly confirmed cases were in individuals who were recently infected as opposed to those who have been sick for some time.

"It's very, very, very early to make any predictions about numbers in this outbreak. This is still a very intense disease outbreak," said Ryan.

Local Chinese residents wear protective masks as they wait in line to get a ticket to receive free masks and cleaner outside a pharmacy on Saturday in Beijing.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Local Chinese residents wear protective masks as they wait in line to get a ticket to receive free masks and cleaner outside a pharmacy on Saturday in Beijing.

Five British citizens, including a 9-year-old child, contracted the virus while at a ski resort in the French Alps. Officials said on Saturday that the family had been visited by someone who had previously visited Singapore, a major Southeast Asia transit hub. The five British nationals are being held in French hospitals and continue to be monitored.

Last month, the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S.

In response, the Trump administration has imposed travel restrictions, temporarily barring most travelers from China, as well as those who have recently been in China, if they are not American citizens. U.S. citizens traveling from China are permitted to enter the United States. But those who have been in Hubei province recently are being screened for the virus and can be quarantined for up to 14 days.

Hundreds of Americans who have been evacuated from the province have to spend two weeks at a military base or other facility being monitored for symptoms of the virus. This is the first federally mandated quarantine in more than 50 years.

The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to China. But officials say the chance of contracting the virus in the U.S. remain low.

In Hong Kong, a mandatory two-week "self-quarantine" has begun for anyone traveling from mainland China, an effort to calm public fears of the virus spreading in the semiautonomous territory that has reported at least 18 cases. Hong Kong authorities are examining more than 1,800 passengers on a cruise ship under quarantine after some passengers who had boarded from China's mainland were confirmed to have the virus.

In mainland China, meanwhile, anger continues to mount over how local officials in Wuhan initially handled the outbreak. This week, China's state censors have been cracking down on news items related to coronavirus, taking down local news stories about the dire circumstances to Wuhan and removing social media posts from residents who said they have fallen ill.

Chinese officials removed millions of posts related to the death of a young Chinese doctor who was among the first to raise alarms about the coronavirus. Many of the censored messages included the hashtag "I want freedom of speech," a message that was trending on Weibo, one of China's most popular social media sites.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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