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World Health Organization officials Wednesday downplayed criticism Chinese officials hushed up cases of a mysterious virus in the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, while hundreds of Canadians found themselves stranded aboard a virus-hit cruise ship off the coast of Japan.
China reported its largest single-day jump in cases since the outbreak began. As of Wednesday, there were 24,363 confirmed cases in China, and 490 deaths.
Outside of China there were 191 cases in 24 countries and one death, in the Philippines.
So far, 99 per cent of cases of the virus known as 2019-nCov are in China; 80 per cent are from the province of Hubei.
Many of those who have died succumbed to multiple organ failure, not necessarily from the virus itself but from “the demand and the shock the virus causes in the body in general,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program said at a media briefing from Geneva. The virus is predominantly causing severe disease and death in older people with underlying health conditions.
Princess Cruises confirmed Wednesday that 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship will remain under quarantine for at least 14 days after 10 people tested positive for the virus. The first phase of testing was completed Wednesday. CBC reports that 251 Canadians are aboard.
Japan’s coast guard transferred the infected patients — two from Australia, three each from Japan and Hong Kong, and one each from the U.S. and the Philippines — to hospitals on the mainland.
The ship arrived in Yokohama port near Tokyo after a 14-day round trip. Passengers now face another two weeks on the vessel. In a video posted to Facebook, British passenger David Abel said passengers have been told to remain in their cabins. While Abel said he and his wife will cope, he worries about other passengers, once boredom in their “floating prison” sets in, especially those staying in cabins with no windows or access to natural light.
Many people will behave stoically, but others appear to be distressed already, said Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. “And I expect that’s only going to get worse over time. We’ll probably see an increase in people who are frustrated, anxious, irritable and perhaps we will see an increase in unruly behaviour as time goes by,” he said, like people refusing to adhere to the quarantine.
People with pre-existing anxiety problems might also be more likely to interpret normal bodily aches and pains as signs of becoming infected, Taylor said.
Passengers have created a private Facebook page to create a virtual community on the ship. In addition to providing timely updates, the cruise ship should increase, as far as reasonably possible, the degree of control people can exert over their food or space, Taylor said. “If there is a way they could let them out for exercise periods, for example, that would be immensely beneficial for helping people manage their stress levels.”
“I think it’s important for people to remind themselves that yes, this is stressful, but it is time limited. They will get out eventually,” Taylor said. “If you think about it, if you can endure two weeks of solitary confinement on a cruise ship, you could deal with any sorts of delays, anywhere, on any travel.
“Trying to find the positive can help people cope.”
At the WHO press briefing Wednesday, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency is sending half a million masks, 350,000 pairs of gloves, 40,000 respirators and 18,000 isolation gowns to 24 countries to help contain the spread of the virus.
WHO is also seeking US$675 million to fund a strategic preparedness and response plan for the next three months — $60 million for WHO’s operations and the remainder to support at-risk countries to prevent, detect and diagnose cases, Tedros said.
We are only as strong as the weakest link
The relatively small number of cases outside China provides a window of opportunity to prevent the outbreak from becoming a “broader global crisis,” he said. “Our message to the international community is: Invest today or pay more later,” he said. The biggest worry is the virus being imported into countries with ill-prepared health systems. “We are only as strong as the weakest link,” Tedros said.
When asked about reports Chinese authorities didn’t report cases rapidly enough and downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak during two political meetings held in Wuhan in early January — the Hubei Provincial People’s Congress and the Political Consultation Conference — Tedros said he couldn’t say “whether there was something hidden or not.” However, he said if China had been hiding he would have expected a higher number of cases exported from China. “Many cases would have made it to the rest of the world without even us knowing,” he said.
“It’s time to act — not to speculate and spread fear, (or) spread panic,” he said. “It’s really time to look forward and act.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020