China said Monday it might postpone its annual congress in March, its biggest political meeting of the year, as the military dispatched hundreds more medical workers and extra supplies to Wuhan, the city hit hardest by a 2-month-old coronavirus outbreak.
Japanese officials, meanwhile, confirmed 99 more people were infected by the new virus aboard the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess, bringing the total to 454.
The standing committee for the National People’s Congress said it believed it was necessary to postpone the gathering to give top priority to people’s lives, safety and health, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
It noted that one-third of the 3,000 delegates were provincial and municipal-level cadres with important leadership roles working on the front lines of the battle against the epidemic.
The standing committee said it would meet Feb. 24 to further deliberate on a postponement. The meeting is due to start March 5.
Health authorities reported 2,048 new cases of the virus and 105 more deaths. Another 10,844 people have recovered from COVID-19, as the new coronavirus is being called, and have been discharged from hospitals, according to Monday’s figures. The death toll is 1,775, with 15 of those in the U.S.
With fears of the virus spreading further, the Chinese and residents of nearby countries and territories have begun hoarding supplies of masks and other personal protective gear as well as a range of items including 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 Monday morning. Supplies of the commodity have become extremely scarce, with often only low-quality imports still available.
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 healthcare 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 70,554 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.
At a daily news briefing, National Health Commission official Guo Yanhong said attempts to contain the virus appeared to be bearing fruit, with the number of new cases reported daily outside of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, falling for 13 days straight and growing numbers of recovered people.
“These are all extremely good signs that show our prevention work is very effective,” Guo said, citing early detection and treatment alongside quarantines and travel restrictions as largely responsible for the result.
Japan’s Health Ministry has been carrying out tests on passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess, which is docked in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo. The 14-day quarantine for those on the ship was due to end Wednesday.
Outside China, the ship has the largest number of cases of COVID-19.
The Health Ministry said it had now tested 1,723 people on the ship, which had about 3,700 passengers and crew aboard.
Two chartered planes flew 340 Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess out of Japan late Sunday. About 380 Americans had been on the ship.
The State Department announced later that 14 of the evacuees were confirmed to have the coronavirus in tests given before they boarded their planes. They were taken to the U.S. because they did not have symptoms and were being isolated from other passengers, it said.
Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy were planning similar flights for their citizens.
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 a meeting of experts to discuss containment measures in his country, where more than a dozen cases have emerged in the last 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 had 66 confirmed cases as of Monday morning, not counting those aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess.