Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Chinese health officials early Thursday reported 114 new deaths that occurred in the previous 24 hours, raising the death toll for mainland China to 2,118 since the epidemic began in December.
Among the newly reported deaths, 108 occurred in the epicenter Hubei province with 88 in Wuhan, the city where the disease is believed to have emerged from, China's National Health Commission said early Thursday in its daily update on the epidemic.
The health officials also reported 394 newly confirmed cases over the previous 24 hours with 349 recorded in Hubei, raising the mainland total to 74,576.
While the rate of infection and the number of daily deaths in China appears to be steadily declining, outside of mainland China at least three more patients died.
Iran's head of public relations at the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, Kianush Jahanpur, confirmed via Twitter its first two patients infected with COVID-19 in the city of Qom had died -- the first confirmed deaths to the disease in the Middle East.
The Chinese health officials also confirmed on Thursday a second person had died in Hong Kong from the disease. The semiautonomous region recorded its first death on Feb. 4.
Globally, the death toll stood at a minimum of 2,126 as France, the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan have each reported a death outside mainland China.
The new taillies follow hundreds of passengers of a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship docked off Japan's eastern coast began disembarking Wednesday after their 14-day quarantine expired.
The Diamond Princess, with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew, has been anchored in Yokohama Port since Feb. 4, after a former passenger was confirmed sickened with the virus.
The vessel was placed under a two-week quarantine, during which the virus spread among its passengers, infecting at least 621 people -- more than half of all confirmed cases outside China, after the Ministry of Health confirmed late Wednesday an additional 79 cases. All ill passengers have been transported to medical institutions on land.
The United States and South Korea repatriated nationals who were passengers of the cruise ship earlier in the week, while several countries are chartering flights to evacuate their citizens.
Ship operator Princess Cruises said in a Wednesday update that passengers who are disembarking from the ship will be those who are not taking government repatriation flights home.
"The disembark process will be undertaken over several consecutive days, since they will be tested, and the testing and results require two to three days to complete," the cruise line said. "A certificate that indicates a negative COVID-19 test result is expected to be granted by Japanese health authorities to exit the ship."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commended Japan for its quarantine efforts but said in an update that "it may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship."
The rate of infection among the passengers represents an ongoing public health risk, and the remaining Americans on board the vessel will be required to wait another 14 days without exhibiting symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19 before they will be allowed to board flights for the United States, the federal health agency said.
"If an individual from this cruise arrives in the United States before the 14-day period ends, they will still be subject to a mandatory quarantine," the CDC said, stating there could be more infections among the Diamond Princess' remaining passengers.
The United States returned 328 Americans from the cruise ship earlier this week leaving just under 100 on board.
Early Thursday, a Cathay Pacific flight touched down in Hong Kong, repatriating 106 passengers of the cruise ship who were deplaned and then escorted to a government quarantine facility for the next 14 days.
Hong Kong said it had 352 residents on board the cruise ship, including 50 infected with the disease who will remain in Japan a medical facilities.
Secretary for Security John Lee told reporters Wednesday during a press conference that more than 200 have said they wanted to take the flight and that they were pressing the Japanese authorities to give priority treatment to their citizens.
"We are pressing the Japanese authorities to allow them all to come down," Lee said. "Our aim is to allow all Hong Kong residents to be allowed to disembark today, so that they will all be sent back to Hong Kong as soon as possible."
The Hong Kong government said the passengers who return will also be subjected to a two-week quarantine.
"This is an imperative for safeguarding the health of the passengers concerned and the health of their families and for preventing and controlling the spread of the epidemic," it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Canada and Australia said Wednesday they were continuing to arrange chartered flights for its citizens, the cruise line said.
Canada said Tuesday an aircraft was in the air heading for Japan to repatriate its citizens with plans to return to North America on Thursday. It did not state how many of the 256 Canadian passengers of the Diamond Princess would be evacuated, though the 43 who have tested positive for the virus will remain in the hospital in Japan.
Those who return will be placed in a second 14-day quarantine at the NAV Canada Training Institute in Cornwall, Ontario.
Passengers who suffer from symptoms or test positive for the virus will not be admitted on the flight, Canda said.
Australia also said it was to evacuate more than 200 nationals on Wednesday from the ship who will be placed under a two-week quarantine on their return.
Britain has said it was also working on returning its citizens on the ship.