China reports further fall in new virus cases, 118 deaths

BEIJING, Feb 21: China reported a further fall in new virus cases to 889 on Friday as health officials expressed optimism over the containment of the outbreak that has caused more than 2,200 deaths and is spreading elsewhere.

Containment of the illness has been a struggle far from the epicenter in central China as a major South Korean city urged residents to stay indoors.

New infections in China have been falling for days, although changes in how it counts cases have caused doubts about the true trajectory of the epidemic.

“The downward trend will not be reversed,” Ding Xiangyang, deputy chief secretary of the State Council and a member of the central government’s supervision group, said on Thursday.

China’s figures for the previous 24 hours brought the total number of cases to 75,465. The 118 newly reported deaths raised the total to 2,236. More than 1,000 cases and 11 deaths have been confirmed outside the mainland.

Iran announced three more infections Thursday, a day after it reported its first two deaths, and South Korea reported its first fatality. Japan said two former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship had died of the illness.

In Australia, two people who were flown back home as the 14-day quarantine on the Diamond Princess was about to end tested positive for the virus despite clearing multiple screenings before the flight.

“It’s possible more people could develop positive tests over the next few days,” said Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy.

The two new cases take the total number in Australia to 17. Of those, 10 people have recovered. Some 170 Australian passengers, most aged in their 60s and 70s, will be quarantined for an additional two weeks after leaving the Diamond Princess.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters that Australia, like the U.S., brought home a mixture of passengers who had tested negative and others whose status was unclear, “therefore it is difficult to immediately jump to a conclusion over when or how they had contracted the virus.”

Kato said passengers who returned home on the US and Australian flights had left before completing the Japanese quarantine process, which ends Friday.

China last week had started recording new cases without waiting for laboratory results, causing a significant spike in the number of cases. But on Thursday it returned to its prior way of counting and removed some cases from the tally because lab tests came back negative.

The changes are sure to aggravate observers who say consistency is key to understanding COVID-19’s path. AP