COVID-19 surges continue in South Korea, Italy

The number of new COVID-19 cases in South Korea and Italy continued to surge, as Iran reported more illnesses and deaths and Japan announced more Diamond Princess cruise ship cases, plus more infections in different cities.

Given the deepening situation over  the novel coronavirus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday upped its travel warning for South Korea and added one for Japan, as the White House signaled it would seek emergency funding for US response to the virus.

South Korea cases top 600

Since yesterday, South Korea's Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) in three reports noted 379 new cases and 1 more death, raising its total to 602, including 3 deaths. (The first update notes 123 cases, the second 210, and the third 46.)

The second report provides an overview of the country's first 556 cases, of which 55.6% are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. The KCDC also said an investigation is under way into infections in 2 patients in Seoul's St Mary's Hospital. It also said 18 infections have been detected in a Catholic church group of 39 from Gyeongbuk who visited the Holy Land in Israel in the middle of February. Testing is still under way on the other 21. In the affected Catholic diocese, 41 churches suspended masses and meetings until Mar 13.

In a related developments today, South Korea raised is COVID-19 alert to its highest level and Israeli officials said they are considering quarantining South Korean visitors at a military base on the West Bank, Reuters reported, based on a report from the Israeli media.

So far, Israel has one COVID-19 case, which involves a Diamond Princess passenger.

Italian cases pass 100

In Italy's rapidly escalating outbreak, the country's health ministry today said testing has now confirmed 132 cases, up sharply from the 30 cases yesterday reflected in media reports. The cases are concentrated in the north, with 88 of them in Lombardy. Other affected regions include Veneto (24), Piedmont (6), Emilia-Romagna (9). Two other cases are from Lazio region near Rome and involve Chinese tourists.

Of the 132 patients, 54 have symptoms and are hospitalized, 26 are in intensive care, and 22 are in home isolation. The ministry said it has more than 3,000 beds available at military installations for quarantine purposes and is looking into hotel options, as well.

In a separate statement, the health ministry announced that university activities are suspended until Feb 29 in the four affected northern regions and that school trips are suspended at the national level.

Several towns in Veneto and Lombardy are under travel restrictions, affecting about 50,000 people, according to a BBC report.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said today in a statement that it is closely monitoring the situation and has been in contact with Italian authorities to provide assistance and support. It also added that it is in contact with the European Commission and other European Union member states. It said it is assessing the threat of the rapidly developing situation in Italy and will release an updated risk assessment within the next 24 hours.

More case rises in Iran

Iran's health ministry today reported 15 more cases today, 3 of them fatal, raising its outbreak total to 43, including 8 deaths. Of the new cases, 7 are from Qom, a holy city that is the outbreak's epicenter.

Four are patients hospitalized in Tehran. One is in the city of Tonekabon, located in Mazandaran province in the north. The machine translation also reflects a case in Rasht, located in Gilan province.

Government officials have temporarily shuttered higher education institutions in 10 provinces, according to the health ministry report. Public gatherings have also been suspended until further notice.

Japan reports more cruise ship, local cases

Japan's health ministry today reported 57 new cases linked to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, as well as another death in a passenger.

Of the new Diamond Princess cases, 55 of them are in crew members, 50 of which are listed as asymptomatic (not having symptoms). Two involve passengers, both of whom are asymptomatic. The cases raise the cluster total to 691, still the biggest outside of China.

The fatal case involves a Japanese man in his 80s and marks the third cruise-related death from the virus.

Also, Japan's health ministry reported 12 more on-shore cases, raising that total to 125, though it notes an overall total of 144 that includes 16 asymptomatic carriers and 3 confirmed positives. The new cases are in Sapporo (1), Nagoya (2), Chiba prefecture (1), and Hokkaido (8).

China cases continue; another doctor dies

China's National Health Commission today reported 648 new cases, up from 397 reported yesterday, for an overall outbreak total of 76,936. Also, health officials reported 97 more deaths and 509 fewer serious cases, putting those totals at 2,442 and 10,968, respectively.

Another death has been reported in a doctor from Wuhan, Xia Sisi, MD, age 29, who worked as a gastroenterologist at Union Jiangbei Hospital, according to CGTN, an English language TV channel based in China.

CDC updates travel warnings; White House mulls emergency funds

The CDC, meanwhile, updated its travel advisory for Japan, elevating it from the lowest "watch" level to the middle level "alert" warning, because of sustained community transmission.

The agency urged older adults and those with chronic medical conditions to consider postponing nonessential travel to the country. It also urged other travelers to take enhanced precautions, such as avoiding contact with sick people and observing thorough hand hygiene.

Also, the CDC issued its first travel advisory for South Korea, a middle-level alert, also owing to sustained community transmission.

The White House has signaled that it will ask Congress for $1 billion in emergency funding to support US response efforts, Politico reported yesterday, citing unnamed administration sources. The report said public health experts say the amount is much lower than what is needed, but it added that the White House hasn't yet settled on a final amount request.

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