COVID-19: Here’s what’s happening around the world Monday

The latest:

  • WHO chief says number of new cases in China continues to decline, with most new cases still in Hubei province.
  • Outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are ‘our greatest concern,’ WHO director says.
  • More than 89,000 cases of COVID-19 reported around the world with more than 3,000 dead.
  • 24 cases reported in Canada, public health officials here say risk from coronavirus low.
  • Read more about how hospitals in Canada are preparing for cases of COVID-19.

South Korea’s viral outbreak surged and millions of children in Japan stayed home from school Monday as officials wrestled with the epidemic in more than 60 countries.

The number of new virus cases in China dropped to its lowest level in six weeks Monday and hundreds of patients at the outbreak’s epicentre were being released from hospital, while a grimmer reality set in elsewhere, with swelling infection numbers and growing dread that no area could fend off the illness.

China, where the epidemic began in December, reported 202 new cases on the mainland over the previous 24 hours, with another 42 deaths. That brings the country’s total number of cases to 80,026 with 2,912 deaths recorded in all. The city of Wuhan accounted for most of the new cases, but also saw 2,570 patients released.

China still has about three-fourths of the world’s nearly 89,000 cases worldwide, but outbreaks were surging in other countries. More than 3,000 people have died worldwide.

While the virus has caused serious illness mainly for the elderly and those with existing health problems, most have had mild illness and some infected apparently show no symptoms at all. But attempts to contain the spread of the virus — for which there is no vaccine or cure — have been far-reaching.

Major cities including Jakarta, New York and Berlin grappled with their first recorded cases. Schools emptied across Japan, mobile hospitals were planned in Iran, and the Mona Lisa, accustomed to droves of staring tourists, hung in a vacant room of the shuttered Louvre in Paris.

WATCH: Infectious disease expert talks about COVID-19 and what to expect

An ambulance transports a patient from a long-term care facility linked to two of three confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington state in the U.S. (David Ryder/Reuters)

“Just about everywhere, the cases are rising quite quickly in a number of countries,” said Ian Mackey, who studies viruses at the University of Queensland in Australia. More than 60 countries around the world — including nine of the 10 most populous — have found infections. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said on Monday the epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are “our greatest concern.” 

The question of whether containment is possible has been debated, but Tedros reiterated his message urging countries to try and contain the virus, pointing to efforts in China and information out of South Korea indicating that cases there appeared to mostly be tied to five known case clusters.

“We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures,” Tedros said. 

Mike Ryan, director of the Geneva-based health agency’s emergencies program, reiterated that message, saying even as experts argue about how best to label and handle the outbreak, the WHO believes continued effort at containment will help save lives and protect health systems.

Even countries with sophisticated health systems have limited intensive care capacity, Ryan said.

“Most countries will struggle if they start to see large numbers of patients requiring intensive care,” he said. “All countries are going to have to think very carefully about how they manage the critical care component of this disease.”

Read on for a look at what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada, as well as some of the harder-hit nations around the world.

Here’s what’s happening in Canada

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Ontario reported four additional cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total in that province to 15. There are an additional eight cases in B.C. and one in Quebec.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which is working with the provinces to prepare for a possible outbreak, says the risk in Canada associated with COVID-19 is low. 

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S.

The United States counted 80 cases as of Sunday and two deaths, both men with existing health problems who had been hospitalized in Washington state. The U.S. total includes evacuees from a virus-stricken cruise ship and from Wuhan, but new cases among California health workers and in New York, Rhode Island and Washington raised concerns on both U.S. coasts.

The second U.S. fatality was a man in his 70s from a nursing facility near Seattle where dozens of sick people were tested for the virus, Washington state health officials said. Researchers said earlier the virus may have been circulating for weeks undetected in Washington state.

Here’s what’s happening in South Korea

A disinfection professional, wearing protective gear, sprays antiseptic solution on escalator handles at a department store in Seoul on Monday to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Chung Sung-jun/Getty Images)

The surging outbreak in South Korea’s fourth-largest city has overwhelmed its health system despite the national government sending assistance. The problem in Daegu has been highlighted by at least four deaths of infected elderly people who were waiting to be hospitalized.

Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice-health minister, said hospitals’ capacities from now on will be reserved for patients with serious symptoms or pre-existing medical conditions, while mild cases will be isolated at designated facilities outside hospitals.

“Considering our limited medical resources, it will be crucial to make quick assessments of patients’ conditions and provide quick, professional and active treatment to those with serious symptoms, and minimize fatalities,” Kim said. “If we continue to hospitalize mild patients amid the continued surge in infections, we would be risking overworking medical professionals and putting them at greater risk of infections.”

South Korea on Monday had 476 new cases for a total of 4,212. Twenty-two people have died.

Here’s what’s happening in Japan

Two students do self-study at an elementary school where the facility was opened for children who cannot stay at home alone while their parents are at work, in Saitama, Japan on Monday. (Kyodo/Reuters)

In Japan on Monday, many schools began following through on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to close for more than a month through the end of the Japanese academic year.

Japan on Monday confirmed at least 15 new coronavirus cases, bringing the number of cases in the country to 976, including passengers infected by the pathogen on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Kyodo newswire reported.

Infections were reported around the country, including five on the northern island of Hokkaido and five others in a nursing home in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo, Kyodo said.

Here’s what’s happening in Iran and the Middle East

Medical equipment and coronavirus testing kits provided by the World Health Organization are pictured at the al-Maktum International Airport in Dubai on Monday as it is readied for a flight to Iran. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Middle East, a worsening situation in Iran was accompanied by concern for its top leaders after a member of the council that advises Iran’s supreme leader died of COVID-19.

Iran on Monday reported 1,501 cases of the virus and 66 deaths. 

The WHO chief said Monday that a staff member in its Iran office has tested positive for COVID-19 and had a mild disease.

“We will have two difficult weeks ahead,” said Ali Raibiei, a spokesperson for the Iranian government, which has faced questions about its reporting after local officials provided different numbers to media outlets.

Rabiei said separately that a closure of Iran’s schools, which was announced on Saturday because of the outbreak, would continue through the end of this week, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from the coronavirus outside China, where the outbreak began. Ryan, of the WHO, said his organization doesn’t believe countries are being non-transparent in their reporting around the disease.

“It’s very easy to get behind the curve,” he said, pointing to the challenges of getting a sense of what is unfolding in the early stages of an outbreak. “The real question is how quickly you catch up.”

A WHO team arrived in Iran on Monday afternoon to offer support to the government and to deliver supplies, WHO said.

Saudi Arabia, which announced last week that it was closing holy sites to foreign pilgrims in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19, reported its first case on Monday.

Here’s what’s happening in Europe

Tourists wearing protective masks as a protection against the coronavirus visit the Milan Cathedral on Monday. The Duomo reopened for the first time since the coronavirus crisis hit parts of northern Italy. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Italian authorities said on Sunday the number of people infected in the country soared 50 per cent to 1,694 in just 24 hours, and five more had died, bringing the death toll there to 34. Cases in France jumped to 130, an increase of 30 in one day.

The Louvre Museum was closed after France curbed large gatherings, and the U.S. issued an advisory against travel to the region of northern Italy where its outbreak is concentrated. Global Affairs Canada says travellers to northern Italy should “exercise a high degree of caution.” 

The outbreaks and rising travel concern could deal a heavy blow to those countries’ tourism industries. Spring, especially Easter, is a hugely popular time for schoolchildren to visit France and Italy.

British health authorities said Monday there had been four more confirmed cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 40. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer of England, said the four new patients had recently travelled from Italy.

Here’s what’s happening in Russia

A Russian citizen returning from Italy was diagnosed with coronavirus, the RIA news agency cited the health-care ministry as saying on Monday. Another three Russian nationals are receiving treatment in Russia after they contracted the virus on a cruise ship in Japan, authorities have said.

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