BEIJING >> The new virus accelerated its spread in China with 56 deaths so far, and the U.S. Consulate in the epicenter of the outbreak, the central city of Wuhan, announced Sunday it will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called the outbreak a grave situation, and the government stepped up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to Wuhan, which remains on lockdown.
The latest figures reported Sunday morning cover the previous 24 hours and mark an increase of 15 deaths and 688 cases for a total of 1,975 infections.
The government also reported five cases in Hong Kong, two in Macao and three in Taiwan. Small numbers of cases have been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France and Australia.
Canada said it discovered its first case, the man is his 50s who recently flew from Wuhan to Guangzhou, China, and then on to Toronto.
A notice from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said there would be limited capacity to transport U.S. citizens on the Tuesday flight from Wuhan that will proceed directly to San Francisco. It said that in the event there are not enough seats, priority will be given to to individuals “at greater risk from coronavirus.”
French automaker PSA Group said it will evacuate its employees from Wuhan, quarantine them and then bring them to France. The Foreign Ministry said it was working on “eventual options” to evacuate French citizens from Wuhan “who want to leave.” It didn’t elaborate.
Also Sunday, two of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, announced they were closing for the time being.
“As a precautionary measure in line with prevention efforts taking place across Hong Kong, we are temporarily closing Hong Kong Disneyland park out of consideration for the health and safety of our guests and cast members,” the park said in a statement. It said a reopening date would be announced based on the advisement of local authorities.
Travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours, and concern is growing over the potential impact of millions of people traveling back to the cities after the Lunar New Year holiday ends on Thursday. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.
Singapore reported its fourth case on Sunday, a 36-year-old man from Wuhan. The Health Ministry said he did not exhibit any symptoms on his flight. He developed a cough the next day, sought treatment on Jan. 24 and was immediately isolated.
South Korea confirmed its third case, according to Yonhap news agency.
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 Sunday. The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighborhoods to help people get around if they need to.
Wuhan plans to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds to handle the growing number of patients. The city has said another hospital was expected to be completed Feb. 3.
Medical workers in Wuhan have been among those infected and local media reported a doctor had died of the virus on Saturday morning. The 62-year-old physician worked at the ear, nose and throat department at Hubei Xinhua Hospital. He was hospitalized on Jan. 18 and died a week later.
Xinhua also said medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.
The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.
The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks, including SARS and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late Friday to help treat many patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, Xinhua reported.
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 on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million — greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
Around China, authorities canceled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist destinations and movie theaters. Temple fairs were suspended, Beijing’s Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland closed, and people canceled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.
In Beijing and other cities, most people wore medical masks on buses and the subway or to public places like grocery stores, where workers dispensed hand sanitizer to customers. Some parts of the country had checkpoints for temperature readings and made masks mandatory.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the virus. Those killed by the virus have mostly been middle-aged or elderly people, sometimes suffering from other conditions that weaken their ability to fight back.
It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone.