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Fears of pandemic stoked as more countries confirm COVID-19 cases

By
Darryl Coote & Brian Dunleavy
The emergency field PMA set up in front of the emergency room of the hospital Guglielmo Saliceto, Piacenza, Italy, on Wednesday. Officials said that the number of people who have died due to the COVID-19 coronavirus in Italy has climbed to 12 while more than 400 persons have contracted the virus. Photo by Marco Ottico/EPA-EFE
The emergency field PMA set up in front of the emergency room of the hospital Guglielmo Saliceto, Piacenza, Italy, on Wednesday. Officials said that the number of people who have died due to the COVID-19 coronavirus in Italy has climbed to 12 while more than 400 persons have contracted the virus. Photo by Marco Ottico/EPA-EFE

Feb. 27 (UPI) -- An infectious and deadly coronavirus that has killed thousands in China has spread to at least 46 countries, stirring fears that COVID-19 may soon become a pandemic.

Estonia and Denmark added their names to the growing list of nations with confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.

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First infections have also been reported in the last 24 hours in Georgia, Greece, North Macedonia, Norway, Pakistan, Romania and Switzerland, among others, as did Brazil, the first South American nation to do so.

The disease has now infected every continent but Antarctica, heightening worries that the virus has grown to a pandemic.

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The WHO on Thursday morning reiterated that its concern is focused on new cases outside China, specifically pointing to "epidemics" in Iran, Italy and South Korea.

"We're at a decisive point," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "My message to each of these countries is this is your window of opportunity. If you act aggressively now, you can contain this virus, you can prevent people getting sick, you can save lives."

For the last two days, the number of new cases around the world has exceeded those in China, where the global outbreak started. While the agency continues to resist calls to declare the outbreak a pandemic, Ghebreyesus said it does have the potential to become one.

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"This is not a time for fear but a time for taking action now to prevent infection and save lives," he said, adding that nations need to be ready to fight rumors and misinformation. "Fear and panic does not help."

Estonia's Ministry of Social Affairs announced its first case in a statement, saying an Iranian citizen living permanently in the northern European country was diagnosed early Thursday and was under the care of doctors at the West Tallinn Central Hospital Infectious Diseases Clinic.

Meanwhile, Denmark said in a statement Thursday it confirmed its first coronavirus patient the night before at Zealand University Hospital.

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The Danish Health Ministry said the man had recently returned from a skiing holiday with his wife and son to Lombardy, where 400 of Italy's 650 confirmed cases of the disease have been confirmed. The man is under quarantine at his home in good health.

The man's wife and son have tested negative, the ministry said.

Denmark said the confirmed case does not change its current risk assessment for infection, which currently stands at "low."

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"After the development in Italy over the weekend, we had expected to see cases of COVID-19 in Denmark soon, so we are not surprised and we must expect to see more cases in the coming days and weeks," said Soren Brostrom, director of Denmark's National Board of Health. "But our strategy is to contain the spread of infection in Denmark."

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World Health Organization officials said Monday they were not yet prepared to declare COVID-19 a pandemic despite its spread, with large clusters growing in Italy, South Korea and Iran.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the new outbreaks were "deeply concerning" but that they did not yet amount to an "uncontained global spread of the virus."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters during a press conference Thursday that while the WHO has yet to call it a pandemic the risk of one is "very much upon us," and initiated a coronavirus emergency response plan.

"We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue and that has put Australia in the strong position we are in to this time in being able to contain the impact of this virus," he said. "So, the actions we're now taking in being prepared even further is to ensure that we can respond immediately when the virus moves to the next level."

Under the plan, Health Minister Greg Hunt has been instructed to work with state and territorial counterparts to find any "gaps in capabilities" that need to be filled in its health system to combat a pandemic.

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The commissioner of the Australian Border Force has also been told to report additional measures required at ports of entry to ensure no one infected with the virus enters the country, Morrison said.

"You can still go and play with your friends down the street, you can go off to the concert and you can go out for a Chinese meal," he said. "You can do all of these things because Australia has acted quickly, Australia has got ahead of this at this point in time."

The prime minister stressed though that this does not mean people should gather in mass for football games or cricket.

Australia has had 15 confirmed cases of the virus, all of which have been cleared and those people have returned to their communities, Morrison said. There are another eight cases imported from the virus-riddled Diamond Princess cruise ship that remains docked off Japan's coast in quarantine.

Ghebreyesus indirectly responded to Morrison Thursday, saying the WHO has already declared its highest level of alarm, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, in late January.

"Using the word 'pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma and paralyzing systems," he said.

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Calling it a worldwide infection may also say that the virus cannot be contained, which is not true, he said.

"We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things. Of course, we will not hesitate to use the word 'pandemic' if it is an accurate description of the situation," he said, adding there has yet to be intensive community transmission of the virus nor large-scare severe disease or death.

Fourteen countries that have reported cases have not recorded a new case in more than a week and nine have not reported a case in more than two weeks while cases in China are dropping with fewer and fewer cases reported outside the virus' epicenter of Hubei, he pointed to.

"Do not mistake me: I am not downplaying the seriousness of the situation or the potential for this to become a pandemic because it has that potential," he said. "... all countries, whether they have cases or not, must prepare for a potential pandemic."

WHO officials said Wednesday marked the first time since the outbreak began in early December that there were more cases reported outside of China than from within the Asian nation where the disease emerged.

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On Wednesday, Chinese health officials reported 406 new cases of the disease and only 52 deaths, its lowest since the beginning of this month as the disease's spread within the country was on the rise.

On Friday, China reported in its daily update 452 new cases over the previous 24 hours, staying relatively pat with the 406 new cases reported Thursday. Since the outbreak began in December, China has recorded 78,824 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 26,403 have been discharged.

China recorded 44 deaths on Friday over the previous 24 hours, an increase from the 29 reported the day prior, though it is still continuing a trend of fewer people dying in the Asian nation from the disease. To date, 2,682 people have died in mainland China.

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