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Xi: China’s situation grave

Cities scramble to contain virus

BEIJING — China’s leader on Saturday called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak’s epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to contain an illness that has infected more than 2,000 people and killed 56.

President Xi Jinping’s remarks, reported by state broadcaster CCTV, came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on Lunar New Year — the country’s biggest holiday whose celebrations have been muted — and underlined the government’s urgent, expanding efforts to control the outbreak.

Travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper reported, citing the China Association of Travel Services.

Millions of people traveling during the holiday have fueled the spread of the outbreak nationwide and overseas after it began in the city of Wuhan in central China. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.

Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases Saturday — four each –and Japan, its third. France confirmed three cases Friday, the first in Europe, and the U.S. identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.

In the heart of the outbreak where 11 million residents are already on lockdown, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting today, state media reported. Only authorized vehicles would be permitted, the reports said.

The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighborhoods, under the management of resident committees, to help people get around.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest one, and close primary and secondary schools for two more weeks on top of next week’s Lunar New Year holiday. They will reopen Feb. 17.

Lam said direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked.

In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan’s health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds. The city has said another hospital was expected to be completed Feb. 3.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities.

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