BEIJING – As officials grow increasingly fearful about their ability to contain the fast-spreading outbreak of a novel coronavirus, this metropolis recorded its first death on Monday, hundreds of foreign nationals prepared to flee the country, and the U.S. government warned Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to China and planned to boost airport staff to screen nearly all passengers from there.
In a rare public mea culpa, a Chinese official said Monday that the government had mishandled the early stages of the crisis, which has claimed at least 106 lives and infected more than 4,400 people. Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang, speaking with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, said his city did not release "timely and satisfactory" information at the start of the epidemic, and he appeared to blame higher-ups in his chain of command.
"I hope everyone can understand that this is an infectious disease, and infectious diseases must be disclosed according to law," he said. "We can only disclose information after we receive authorization."
The mayor said 5 million people have already left his city, some before and some after the official quarantine. Meanwhile, more than 700 miles away, Beijing recorded its first death from the outbreak, according to the city's health commission. A 50-year-old man who visited Wuhan on Jan. 8 developed a fever when he returned home a week later and died Monday — one of the pathogen's younger victims. Seven other cases of illness in Beijing have been confirmed.
Late Monday, a top U.S. health official criticized Chinese authorities for not inviting U.S. and other international investigative agencies to join them in researching the new virus. While China has been more transparent than it was during the 2003 SARS outbreak, U.S. officials are still getting their information through press briefings rather than from direct transfer of scientific data, said Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci pointed out that China's health minister, Ma Xiaowei, said publicly Sunday that the virus could be transmitted by an infected person before symptoms appear.
"We really need to know what is the scientific basis of saying the virus is spread by someone who doesn't have any symptoms," Fauci told the Washington Post. "That was a major potential game-changer that gets spoken to us in a press briefing. We should have seen the data."
This could affect how the U.S. screens people traveling from China.
"If people can be transmitting and infecting without any symptoms, that has a major impact on how you screen people," he said.
Amid growing alarm about the disease's fast spread, the CDC is boosting staffing at 20 U.S. airports that have quarantine facilities. The expanded effort will take effect in coming days.
Epidemiologists around the globe raced to understand how the virus spreads, how long it incubates before making a person ill, whether it can be contagious even when the person is asymptomatic, and how lethal it is. They said the public should not assume the worst about this outbreak.
In the United States, 110 people in 26 states are being tested for possible infection; five so far — all people who traveled from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China — are confirmed to have the infection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. No one in the United States has died, and there is no known case yet of the virus spreading within the country.
"We understand people may worry about the new #coronavirus," CDC Director Robert Redfield tweeted Monday. "In today's connected world, an outbreak anywhere can be a risk everywhere. Risk is dependent on exposure. 2019-nCoV is not spreading in the US at this time. CDC continues to believe the risk to the U.S. public is now low."
The five confirmed cases are in Southern California, Chicago, Arizona and Washington state. Infections also have been confirmed in France, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada and Sri Lanka.
The CDC increased its travel warning to a Level 3 Monday — its highest alert level — urging U.S. citizens to avoid all nonessential travel to China because of the outbreak.