Updated at 1:14 p.m. ET
The deadly strain of coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan has now spread to every part of mainland China, from Shanghai to Tibet. The rapid increase prompted Russia to close its long border with China on Thursday.
The coronavirus has now been found in at least 20 countries since the outbreak began last month, with the Philippines and India being the latest countries to report cases. It’s expected to keep growing: Respiratory virus experts in Hong Kong say they believe the outbreak’s peak is still months away, likely in late spring.
“Ben Cowling, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, says that in the last few days the trajectory of this outbreak has grown much clearer,” NPR’s Jason Beaubien reports from Hong Kong. He adds, “Cowling says the outbreak is just getting started, and he expects to see increased levels of transmission globally, including in the United States.”
“I think it’s quite likely that you will see human-to-human transmission in U.S. cities” within weeks, Cowling said – but it only took a matter of hours for his prediction to come true, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that the first human-to-human spread had occurred in Illinois.
There are concerns that a Chinese passenger aboard a cruise ship in Italy may have the coronavirus — a revelation that has kept more than 6,000 people on the ship while it sits at a port near Rome. Those aboard the ship, the Costa Smeralda, will remain in place until tests determine whether the passenger, a 54-year-old woman from Macau, is carrying the virus.
The ship’s medical staff placed the woman and her traveling companion into isolation in the Costa Smeralda’s shipboard hospital Wednesday night after suspecting that she might have the coronavirus, Costa Cruises tells NPR. The company is a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Line.
The Costa Smeralda is on the last day of a seven-day roundtrip cruise in the western Mediterranean. It arrived back at its Italian home port of Civitavecchia Thursday morning after making stops in tourism-heavy areas such as Marseille, Barcelona and Mallorca.
The Costa Smeralda is the cruise line’s newest ship in the Mediterranean, having made its first cruise just before Christmas.
President Trump has created a special task force to coordinate the U.S. response to the new coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. Led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the group includes CDC Director Robert Redfield as well as other health, security and transportation officials.
The World Health Organization says nations “must be on alert” to combat the coronavirus.
“Person-to-person transmission has been seen in at least 3 countries outside China — Japan, Vietnam and Germany,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said via Twitter on Thursday.
WHO held an emergency session about the virus Thursday, its second such meeting in as many days as it weighs whether to designate the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.
The U.S. State Department is arranging further evacuation flights for Americans caught in Wuhan’s virtual lockdown, with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing saying additional flights are tentatively set for Monday.
About 200 Americans were brought to California on Wednesday, on a flight that included diplomats and their families. The new flights will have “capacity for private U.S. citizens on a reimbursable basis,” the State Department says.
Nearly 82,000 people were under medical observation in China out of concern that they might have the virus, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention says.
There are now more than 7,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China, where the illness has killed 170 people. The majority of the cases are in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital. But at least 13 other Chinese provinces have confirmed 100 or more cases of people who have the coronavirus.
Announcing Russia’s decision to close its land border with China, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Thursday that the new restrictions will take effect Friday. Saying the well-being of the Russian people is his top priority, Mishustin said the temporary closures are the result of special circumstances created by the deadly illness.
To reduce the chance of spreading any respiratory illness, the CDC recommends that people take simple steps such as washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoiding close contact with anyone who is sick.