Coronavirus Live Updates: Fears Grow That Epidemic Is Bigger Than China Says

Chinese authorities on Thursday morning closed off Wuhan — a major port city of more than 11 million people and the center of a pneumonia-like virus that has spread halfway around the world — by canceling planes and trains leaving the city, and suspending buses, subways and ferries within it.

In Wuhan, residents said that a sense of fear was growing as the city went into lockdown.

The new virus, which first emerged at the end of December, has killed at least 17 people and sickened more than 570, including in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the United States. It has raised the specter of a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which broke out in China in 2002 and 2003 and spread rapidly while officials obscured the seriousness of the crisis. That virus eventually killed more than 800 people worldwide.

Roughly 30,000 people fly out of Wuhan on an average day, according to air traffic data. Many more leave using ground transportation like trains and cars. The city is the hub of industry and commerce in central China, home to the region’s biggest airport and deepwater port.

The sudden restrictions could upend the travel plans of millions of Chinese citizens, who travel in huge numbers during the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Friday. The government said it would close Wuhan’s airport and train stations to departures, and it urged residents not to leave the city — a major transportation hub — unless they had an urgent reason to do so.

Some residents were directing their anger at the local authorities, accusing them of not doing enough to contain the crisis.

“The government did not fulfill its duty,” Du Hanrong, 56, a retiree, said by telephone. “They just are doing things hastily and carelessly.”

Others said they were going about business as usual, and that people were still going out to shop for the New Year. Still, many residents were taking precautions, such as canceling plans to have dinner with friends and relatives for the holiday.

“We are all quarantining ourselves at home voluntarily now,” said Tony Li, 39. “Cutting off the city is necessary. Wuhan is the center of the epidemic, after all.”

The outbreak is testing Wuhan’s health care system. Several Wuhan residents said on social media websites that they had gone from hospital to hospital, waiting in lines for hours, only to be sent home with medicine and instructions to seek further treatment later if symptoms persisted in a few days.

Doctors told some patients that there was a shortage of hospital beds as well as testing kits, according to posts on Chinese social media sites. According to Chinese news reports, a patient flew to Dalian to seek treatment at hospitals there after he was sent home from a hospital in Wuhan. In Dalian, he tested positive for the coronavirus.

Calls to local hospitals in Wuhan rang unanswered Wednesday.

The announcement that the city of Wuhan would be temporarily sealed off from the outside world starting at 10 a.m. on Thursday came while most residents were asleep at 2 a.m.

Some decided to flee the city.

Residents were seen hauling their luggage to a train station in the early hours before the citywide lockdown took effect, the Chinese news outlet Caixin reported. Several people said they would buy tickets for any destination as long as they could leave Wuhan, the magazine reported.

Lines of passengers in masks and down jackets, lugging suitcases, formed outside the major Hankou railway station just 20 minutes before the cutoff time, a live video by media outlet The Paper showed.

Han Zhen and Wang Mengkai, two migrant workers from Henan Province, said they had rushed to the railway station in order to leave on Wednesday night, but missed the last train out.

Both said they were frustrated by the sudden lockdown and were scrambling to find a way home.

“It’s serious but not that serious,” said Mr. Wang, who works in an electronics parts factory. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get home. If we can’t get out on a train, we’ll try putting together a car with a driver.”

Asked if they were motivated to leave by fear of the virus, Mr. Han said: “No, we are not scared.”

“It’s the New Year, we just have to go home,” he added.

Coronaviruses are named for the spikes that protrude from their membranes, which resemble the sun’s corona. They can infect both animals and people, and cause illnesses of the respiratory tract, ranging from the common cold to severe conditions like SARS, which sickened thousands of people around the world — and killed nearly 800 — during a 2003 outbreak.

Symptoms of infection include a high fever, difficulty breathing and lung lesions. Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, making detection very difficult. The incubation period — the time from exposure to the onset of symptoms — is believed to be about two weeks.

Little is known about who is most at risk. Some of the nine patients who have died also suffered other illnesses.

Chris Buckley, our chief China correspondent, is headed to Wuhan from Beijing to cover the outbreak. He is sending live dispatches from his trip.

9:25 a.m. — Beijing

At the Beijing West Railway Station on Thursday morning there were noticeably more people wearing masks than have been seen around the city in recent days. Still, the number of travelers heading out for the Lunar New Year is still sizable. This is not the empty ghost city that Beijing became during the SARS epidemic of 2003. Hundreds of people lined up to take a train that passes through Wuhan and other cities on the way to Hong Kong. Almost all wore masks.

11 a.m. — Aboard the G79 high speed train

The G79 high speed train from Beijing to Hong Kong, which stops in Wuhan, was crowded with holiday passengers. But few seemed to have plans to get off in Wuhan. The train was a hubbub of conversation, much of it about the deadly coronavirus and the lockdown around Wuhan.

Guo Jing, a worker from northeast China, was headed with two friends for a holiday in Macau. After some hesitation, they had taken off their masks. “They’re too uncomfortable inside,” Mr. Guo said. “My view is we have to be careful but not panic. If you’re the panicky type, then you wouldn’t be on this train.”

1:37 p.m. — Aboard the G79 high speed train

Half an hour out from Wuhan, the train is quite crowded with passengers, most of whom are wearing masks.

I haven’t been able to find any who say they are ending their journey at Wuhan, and when I explain that I’m getting off there the reactions vary from advice — wear masks, don’t go, drink lots of water — to mordant jokes that I may be there a long time.

“You should know that they probably won’t let people out until the New Year holiday is over,” said one woman, who would only give her family name, Yang. I had expected that there might be checks on the train, or guards checking people who planned to get off at Wuhan. But not so far.

2:29 p.m. — Wuhan

Wuhan Railway Station, usually thronging with people in the days before the Lunar New Year holiday, is very empty.

An announcement playing on a loop over the speakers tells the few people here that residents cannot leave the city and the station is temporarily closed. But there is, so far at least, no extraordinary security around the station. There was a fever detector at the exit from the train platform, but I’ve seen no other steps to check people.

There are growing concerns that the Chinese authorities are underreporting the number of people who are ill with the virus. Relatives of patients say that some hospitals, strapped for resources as they deal with an influx of patients, are turning sick people away or refusing to test them for the coronavirus.

Many people remain skeptical of the government’s official statistics, with memories of the effort to cover up the severity of the SARS outbreak in 2003 still fresh.

In Wuhan, Kyle Hui, an architect from Shanghai, said that doctors at Tongji Hospital declined to test his stepmother for the virus, even though she was showing symptoms like a cough and a fever. She died on Jan. 15 of “severe pneumonia,” according to a copy of her death certificate.

Mr. Hui said that hospital workers treated his stepmother as if she had the coronavirus, wearing hazmat suits. After she died, the hospital instructed the family to cremate the body immediately. Mr. Hui said that after her death, doctors informed the family that they suspected his stepmother had the coronavirus.

“I’m very sad my stepmother left without any dignity,” Mr. Hui said during an interview this week in a cafe in Wuhan. “There was no time to say goodbye.”

A sense of crisis is spreading through China as more people fall ill to the deadly virus. But you wouldn’t know it reading the front pages of China’s official newspapers.

As China grapples with one of its most serious public health crises in years, the ruling Communist Party’s most important news outlets seem oblivious to the emergency.

On Thursday, the front page of the People’s Daily featured stories about China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “visiting and comforting” villagers in Yunnan, a southwestern province, ahead of the Lunar New Year Holiday, describing a “warm and peaceful” scene. A photo showed New Year’s revelers aboard a train, smiling and snapping photos.

On Wednesday, China Central Television, the state broadcaster, treated the outbreak as a footnote in its evening newscast, one of the most watched television programs in China, instead focusing on Mr. Xi’s talks with world leaders.

While more commercially focused outlets, such as Caixin, a financial magazine, and the Beijing News, a newspaper, are covering the crisis extensively, the party’s flagship news outlets have been relatively quiet.

Experts said Mr. Xi appeared to be trying to prevent a sense of panic and to limit criticism of the party’s response.

“The top priority will be to keep coverage from asking more probing questions about how China’s institutions have responded, questions that might lead to criticism of the government,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project.

Reporting was contributed by Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, Russell Goldman, Chris Buckley, Javier Hernández, Austin Ramzy, Steven Lee Myers, Tiffany May and Elaine Yu. Amber Wang, Albee Zhang, Claire Fu, Elsie Chen and Zoe Mou contributed research.

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