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More Than 1,700 Health Workers In China Have Been Infected With New Coronavirus

Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

More than 1,700 health workers in China have been infected with the new coronavirus, according to Chinese officials. Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the country's National Health Commission, announced Friday that at least 1,716 health workers had confirmed cases — and that six have died from the disease now known as COVID-19.

"At present, the duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy," Zeng told a news conference, according to Reuters. "Their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great, and the risk of infection is high."

Those cases are among tens of thousands already reported in mainland China, which has been hardest hit by the fast-spreading strain. Chinese authorities announced that confirmed coronavirus cases rose by just over 5,000 on Friday — the second spike in as many days, after a change in reporting methods drove the number higher Thursday.

Worldwide, there were at least 64,000 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, and more than 1,300 deaths — the vast bulk in mainland China, and particularly in Hubei province, the center of the outbreak.

The World Health Organization announced Friday that a team of 12 international investigators is expected to touch down this weekend in China and begin working with a team of Chinese experts.

"The goal of the joint mission is to rapidly inform the next steps in the COVID-19 response and preparedness activities in China and globally," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said during a briefing. "Particular attention will be paid to understanding the transmission of the virus, the severity of disease and the impact of ongoing response measures."

The Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, would not explain to NPR why the top Communist Party officials in Hubei were recently relieved of their duties.
Kisha Ravi / NPR
The Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, would not explain to NPR why the top Communist Party officials in Hubei were recently relieved of their duties.

"With the benefit of hindsight, everybody knew that Dr. Li was right"

When Dr. Li Wenliang posted warnings on Chinese social media about cases of a novel coronavirus in late December, government officials took a dim view. The ophthalmologist working in Wuhan, where the virus emerged, was reprimanded by local police. They demanded that he retract his "falsehood."

Now, more than a week after Li himself died of the disease — the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, acknowledges that Li's posts were accurate.

"Of course," Cui tells NPR's Morning Edition, "with the benefit of hindsight, everybody knew that Dr. Li was right."

But he stops short of acknowledging any particular mistakes made by Chinese officials or offering a direct apology to Li's family. Cui also would not explain why the top Communist Party officials in Hubei were recently relieved of their duties.

"Naturally, under such special circumstances, people who can do the job better should be given the responsibility to do it," he said. "And this is a very heavy responsibility."

Worries about the Tokyo Olympics

Questions have begun to swirl around the Summer Olympics, which are slated to begin just over five months from now in Tokyo.

Japan has reported more than two dozen confirmed cases of the coronavirus and one death from COVID-19. The Diamond Princess cruise liner has sat quarantined for days in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo. Nearly 220 people out of some 3,700 passengers and crew have been infected with the virus. The number of cases and the country's proximity to the outbreak in China have raised concerns about holding such a massive sporting event.

The chief executive of the Tokyo organizing committee, Toshiro Muto, expressed some of these concerns himself, saying he was "seriously worried" that the spread of coronavirus "could throw cold water on the momentum toward the Games."

But officials with the WHO and the International Olympic Committee are sending a different message. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program, said that the organization is "very much engaged" with the Olympics planning — but that there has been no specific discussion yet regarding the event.

"Certainly the advice we're received externally from the WHO is that there's no case for any contingency plans or canceling the games or moving the games," said John Coates, the head of an IOC inspection team.

About that cruise liner off Japan ...

The Japanese health ministry says 11 particularly vulnerable passengers have disembarked the Diamond Princess after a long quarantine period offshore. The ministry says that to do so, they had to meet at least these criteria: They had to be over 80 years old and test negative for the disease.

Thousands of passengers and crew remain under quarantine — and likely will continue to do so until it is expected to lift next week.

Meanwhile, the nearly 1,500 passengers aboard the MS Westerdam, another cruise liner, were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia on Friday after being turned away by a string of other countries.

"I wish to thank Cambodia, especially the prime minister [Hun Sen], for demonstrating to the world the meaning of solidarity," said Tedros, the director-general of the WHO. "I hope that other countries will follow Cambodia's lead."

Tally of confirmed cases in the U.S. unchanged

That number remains at 15, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released more detailed information Friday: Of the 443 people under investigation in the U.S., 347 have tested negative and 81 others were awaiting their results.

"But we need to remember it's a rapidly changing situation, and so we have to prepare in the event that this spreads more fully," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tells NPR's Morning Edition.

"One of the steps that we announced yesterday is we're working with our flu surveillance network," he adds. "And in Seattle, San Francisco, LA, New York and Chicago, when individuals present with flu-like symptoms, they will also be tested for the China coronavirus as part of our multilayer surveillance system."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.