BEIJING — The first American and Japanese citizens have died from the coronavirus that continues to spread unabated in central China, as authorities here labeled masks a "strategic resource" and manufacturing companies pivoted to mask production to try to boost supply of protective equipment.
The deaths, which both occurred in the virus epicenter of Wuhan, came as Chinese officials said the death toll climbed to 723 - recording the biggest daily jump so far, with 86 new deaths reported in 24 hours. There have been two deaths outside the mainland: A Wuhan man in the Philippines, and a local man in Hong Kong.
Despite efforts to contain the virus, which Chinese health authorities on Saturday officially named "novel coronavirus pneumonia" or NCP, the number of people in mainland China confirmed as being infected is now nearing 35,000. Another 28,000 suspected cases were reported Saturday.
A 60-year old American citizen, whose name has not been disclosed, died Thursday at Jinyintian Hospital in Wuhan, the U.S. Embassy said Saturday.
"We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss," the embassy said in a statement. "Out of the respect for the family's privacy, we have no further comment."
It's not clear why the recently deceased U.S. citizen was unable to evacuate Wuhan, where the State Department extracted roughly 530 citizens on two flights this week, but it may have been because the person was already too sick to travel.
A handful of those Americans recently evacuated have shown signs of fever and are being tested and treated at Travis Air Force Base in California, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All returning Americans are being held in 14-day quarantine as soon as they land.
U.S. authorities announced strict quarantine measures for travelers from China on Feb. 2. So far, 12 people in the United States have been reported infected. President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he had spoken to Chinese leader Xi Jinping by phone and praised Xi as "strong, sharp and powerfully focused" in his response to the epidemic.
In Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry said that a Japanese man in his 60s who lived in Wuhan had also died.
Chinese medical authorities notified the Japanese government that the cause of his death was "viral pneumonia," even though his symptoms strongly indicated that he was infected with the new coronavirus.
The man had symptoms consistent with a coronavirus infection and tested positive 10 days ago, but died before the result was confirmed, according to the Japanese state broadcaster, NHK.
The Japanese government has also been evacuating hundreds of its citizens and their family members from Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. Of the 565 Japanese evacuated, nine have tested positive.
The fourth and probably final flight, carrying 198 people, arrived in Tokyo on Friday. Twelve of the evacuees had fever, cough and other minor conditions, and they have been sent to hospitals to be tested for the virus.
There are another 64 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including in 13 Americans, on the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off the coast of Japan, with 3,200 people onboard.
Despite efforts to stop the spread of the pneumonia-like illness both in China and across the world, with dozens of countries imposing new screening or quarantine regulations on arrivals from China, cases have now been found in more than 25 countries.
The World Health Organization, which has categorized the outbreak as a global public health emergency, said Friday that the majority of cases in China were considered "mild."
After analyzing 17,000 cases provided by Chinese health authorities, WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said they found that 82 percent of the cases were mild, while 15 percent severe and only 3 percent were critical. The death rate stands at less than 2 percent, she told reporters in Geneva.
Separately, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced concern about the global shortage of masks, noting that some were selling for 20 times their normal price as vendors tried to make fast money from the outbreak.
"There are now depleted stockpiles and backlogs of four to six months. Global stocks of masks and respirators are now insufficient to meet the needs of WHO and our partners," he said Friday.
It was "inappropriate" for people who were not sick to be wearing them, he said. "There is a moral issue here."
Many infections appear to be taking place in hospitals and medical centers, with health-care workers particularly vulnerable in the early days.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, carried out by doctors from Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, found that 41 percent of patients in Wuhan contracted the coronavirus while in hospital.
The risk to front line medical staff was painfully illustrated this week when the Wuhan "whistleblower doctor" Li Wenliang, who was detained and forced to apologize for rumor-mongering at the beginning of January after trying to alert his colleagues to a strange new illness, died from the coronavirus.
The death of a healthy young doctor who tried to sound the alarm has led to an explosion of anger across China at the way its leadership responded to the outbreak, an anger that many political observers saying it represents one of the biggest challenges to the Communist Party in years.
With the Party is struggling to manage the public reaction, a Beijing-based company, Womin Technology, quickly compiled a "public sentiment" report drawing on posts from more than 100 social media sources and submitted it, along with their recommendations, to the central leadership.
The seven-page document, which was reviewed by The Post, analyzed the intensity of public outrage over Li's death. It recommended that the Party leadership "affirm" the doctor's contributions while stepping up efforts to block harmful speech and "divert" the public's attention with positive news.
It predicted, finally, that there was "low probability" of street gatherings but warned local authorities to be on guard to "deal decisively" with any unrest.
Masks are in short supply in China, and there has been a particular rush for N95 face masks, which can filter out 95 percent of particles. They are sold out online and in stores across China, with some areas even conducting lotteries to win new masks that are being produced.
Now, some provinces have classified the masks a "strategic" resource and have restricted their availability.
In an attempt to save these masks for front line doctors and nurses, provinces including Jilin and Zhejiang have banned civil servants - except those with special need for protection, like an underlying health condition - from wearing N95 masks.
The northern province of Heilongjiang has meanwhile offered to trade one N95 for five normal surgical masks, so they can send the more high-tech masks to medical workers.
Zhong Nanshan, a veteran pulmonologist who is something of a national hero in China, said this week that N95 masks are not necessary for everyone, and one-off medical use masks are enough under normal circumstances.
Companies across China, from carmakers to cellphone parts supplies, have now turned themselves into mask manufacturers in an attempt to boost supply.
The General Motors partnership in China, diaper maker Daddybaby and Foxconn subsidiary Fulian have all started to make or sought permission to make masks, while the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, more frequently known as Sinopec, has advertised for mask-making machines.
Other companies are turning to protective suits for medical use. Jiangsu Hongdou, a famous menswear brand, is manufacturing 10,000 protective suits a day but still cannot meet incoming orders. Shanghai underwear brand Three Gun is also making protective suits and sent the first batch of 5,000 suits had been sent to Hubei this week.
As the Chinese government has used more and more draconian measures to try to contain the virus, including ordering tens of millions of people across Hubei and Zhejiang provinces to stay at home, they have also tried to enforce increasingly strict rules.
Beijing authorities Friday said that lying about having contact with someone with coronavirus contacts could be punishable by death, that failure to report symptoms like fever could lead to criminal charges, and that people who are not wearing masks could be detained.
"If found to have endangered public safety with dangerous means, those with such behavior . . . could be arrested and sentenced to three years or less of imprisonment for lighter cases, and 10 years' or more in jail, life sentence, or even death sentence in severe cases," said Li Fuying, director of the Beijing Judicial Bureau.
Shanghai also mandated Saturday that masks must be worn in public places and that people must cooperate with compulsory temperature checks when entering hospitals and clinics, airports, bus and rail terminals, malls and supermarkets.
In Hangzhou, the capital of virus-stricken Zhejiang province, authorities have banned over-the-counter sales of fever and coughing medications in an attempt to make sure people who are potentially infected with coronavirus seek medical attention rather than trying to treat themselves.
This article was written by Gerry Shih and Anna Fifield, reporters for The Washington Post.