Imperial guards wearing face masks stand in the snow at the Gyeongbok Palace, the main royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty, in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Chinese authorities on Monday reported a slight upturn in new virus cases and hundred more deaths for a total of thousands since the outbreak began two months ago. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

China may postpone annual congress because of virus

February 17, 2020 - 3:53 am

BEIJING (AP) — China says it may postpone its annual congress in March, its biggest political meeting of the year, because of the virus outbreak. The standing committee for the National People’s Congress said Monday that it believes it is necessary to postpone the gathering to give top priority to people’s lives, safety and health.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP'S EARLIER STORY IS BELOW.

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Chinese authorities on Monday reported a slight upturn in new virus cases and 105 more deaths, as the military dispatched hundreds more medical workers and extra supplies to the city hit hardest by the 2-month-old outbreak.

The 2,048 new cases followed three days of declines but was up by just 39 from the previous day's tally of new cases. Another 10,844 people have recovered from COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus, and have been discharged from hospitals, according to Monday's figures. The death toll is 1,770.

With fears of the virus spreading further, Chinese and residents of nearby countries and territories have begun hoarding supplies of everything from masks and other personal protective gear to instant noodles, cooking oil and toilet paper.

In Hong Kong, local media reported that police had arrested two men and were seeking three others who allegedly stole a load of 60 packs of toilet paper at knifepoint early early Monday morning. Supplies of the commodity have become extremely scarce, with often only low-quality imports still available. Police were expected to discuss the matter later.

Another 1,200 doctors and nurses from China's military began arriving in Wuhan on Monday morning, the latest contingent sent to help shore up the city's overwhelmed health-care system. The city has rapidly built two prefabricated hospitals and converted gymnasiums and other spaces into wards for those showing milder symptoms, but residents still say they are being wait-listed for beds and even ambulance rides.

Wuhan has accounted for the vast majority of mainland China's 70,548 cases. Some 60 million people in that area and other parts of China are under lockdown in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Public transportation, trains and air travel have been halted in Wuhan since Jan. 23, and a ban on all vehicle travel in the city was expanded to all of surrounding Hubei province in an additional containment measure. Vehicles involved in epidemic prevention and transporting daily necessities were exempt.

New cases in other countries are raising more concern about containment of the virus. Though only a few hundred cases have been confirmed outside China, some recent cases lacked obvious connections to China.

Taiwan on Sunday reported its first death from COVID-19, the fifth fatality outside of mainland China. Taiwan's Central News Agency, citing health minister Chen Shih-chung, said the man who died was in his 60s and had not traveled overseas recently and had no known contact with virus patients.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened an experts meeting to discuss containment measures in his country, where more than a dozen cases have emerged in the past few days without any obvious link to China.

“The situation surrounding this virus is changing by the minute,” Abe said.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the country was “entering into a phase that is different from before,” requiring new steps to stop the spread of the virus.

Japan has 415 confirmed cases, including 355 from a quarantined cruise ship, and one death from the virus. Japan has the highest number of cases among about two dozen countries outside of China where the illness has spread.

Hundreds of Americans from the cruise ship took charter flights home, and Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy were planning similar flights.

The 300 or so Americans flying on U.S.-government chartered aircraft back to the U.S. will face another 14-day quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in California and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The U.S. Embassy said the departure was offered because people on the ship were at a high risk of exposure to the virus. People with symptoms were banned from the flights.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a Qantas flight was being arranged to evacuate Australian passengers, who would be quarantined at a facility near Darwin upon arrival on Wednesday. The flight will take return some New Zealand evacuees to their home country as well, he said.

About 255 Canadians and 330 Hong Kong residents are on board the ship or undergoing treatment in Japanese hospitals. There are also 35 Italians, of which 25 are crew members, including the captain.

The latest updates follow the release in China's official media of a recent speech by President Xi Jinping in which he indicated for the first time that he had led the response to the outbreak from early in the crisis. While the reports were an apparent attempt to demonstrate the Communist Party leadership acted decisively from the start, it also opened Xi up to criticism over why the public was not alerted sooner.

In his speech, Xi said he gave instructions on fighting the virus on Jan. 7 and ordered the shutdown of the most-affected cities. The disclosure of his speech indicates top leaders knew about the outbreak’s potential severity at least two weeks before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

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