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China expands lockdown against virus, fast-tracks hospital

More cities quarantined

China expanded its lockdown against the deadly new virus to an unprecedented 36 million people and rushed to build a prefabricated, 1,000-bed hospital for victims Friday as the outbreak cast a pall over Lunar New Year, the country's biggest and most festive holiday.

The number of confirmed cases around the world climbed sharply to more than 850, with at least 25 deaths, all of them in China.

The U.S. reported its second case, involving a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalized after returning from China. She was reported to be doing well.

Transportation was shut down in Wuhan, the city of 11 million at the epicenter of the outbreak, and in at least 12 other cities in central China's Hubei province, encompassing a population bigger than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

And authorities in Beijing and other cities cancelled many public celebrations and other events marking Lunar New Year, which falls on Saturday.

Hospitals in Wuhan grappled with a flood of patients and a lack of supplies. Videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for checks, and some people complained that family members who had sought diagnoses were turned away at hospitals that were at capacity. Authorities in Wuhan and elsewhere put out calls for medicine, disinfection equipment, masks, goggles, gowns and other protective gear.

Wuhan authorities said they are rapidly constructing a new hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed Feb. 3. It will be modeled on a SARS hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the SARS outbreak.

The seriousness of the crisis was still an open question.

It was not clear just how lethal the virus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people in U.S. alone every year. Scientists say it is also not clear if it spreads as easily as SARS, its genetic cousin, which also originated in China and killed about 800 people in 2002-03.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse. It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, whose symptoms can initially resemble those of the cold and flu, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.

"It's still too early to draw conclusions about how severe the virus is because at the beginning of any outbreak you would focus more on the severe cases," said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. “And then maybe we are missing some mild cases because people will just be a little bit sick and will not have it tested. And they will recover.”

With authorities afraid that public gatherings will only worsen the spread of the virus, temples locked their doors, Beijing's Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations closed, and people cancelled restaurant reservations ahead of the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar, normally a time of family reunions and sightseeing trips in the country of 1.4 billion people.

Wuhan's usually bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were unnervingly quiet on Day Two of its lockdown, and masks were mandatory in public. Shoppers emptied store shelves, stocking up for what could be an extended period of isolation. Karaoke bars, movie theatres and internet cafes around the region were shut down.



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