People in Beijing wear mandatory protective face masks and have their temperature checked before they're allowed to enter an international shopping mall. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo
March 13 (UPI) -- International health officials said Friday that Europe has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, as the continent is now producing more new cases each day than China did at the height of its crisis.
The World Health Organization said in an update late Friday morning there are 132,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide in 123 nations. More than 5,000 people have died, the organization said. Johns Hopkins University, which has been regularly tracking cases around the world, reported nearly 137,500 cases globally by 2 p.m. EDT Friday.
"Europe has now become the epicenter of the crisis, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from of China," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said from Geneva, Switzerland.
Ghebreyesus also reported that progress has been made against COVID-19. More countries have set up national plans using "whole-of-government" approaches and most have established lab testing, he said.
"We have shipped supplies of personal protective equipment to 56 countries. We are shipping to a further 28, and we have sent almost 1.5 million diagnostic tests to 120 countries."
The WHO chief reiterated, however, that the spread of the virus can't be stopped with isolated actions such as "social distancing," and requires more comprehensive strategies that include rigorous contact tracing and quarantine enforcement.
Italian health officials said Friday its death toll has surpassed 1,000 and the number of new cases climbed by more than 2,200. They added that nearly 1,300 cases have recovered.
Italy's healthcare system is under threat with the surge of cases pushing its capacity to treat seriously ill patients. A study published in The Lancet medical journal on Thursday predicted the nation will run out of beds in intensive care units if more aren't provided within about a week.
The Spanish government said Friday it will implement a 15-day "state of alarm," under which authorities can restrict movements of citizens and limit the number of people in certain areas at certain times.
The measure also allows authorities to ration services and the consumption of essential items to prevent panic buying. Friday was just the second time Spain activated a state of alarm since the 1970s.
The Catalan regional government ordered a complete lockdown in parts of Barcelona, affecting a total of 70,000 people.
With more than 4,300 confirmed cases, Spain trails only China, Italy and Iran as the nation with the most COVID-19 cases.
China reported eight new cases and seven deaths Friday. The cases increased China's caseload to just under 81,000 -- of which 64,000 have been treated and discharged from hospitals. Nearly 3,200 patients have died.
New cases have also slowed in South Korea. Health officials cited 110 new cases Friday -- the lowest daily number in more than two weeks. Seoul said it's close to completing a large-scale testing effort in the southeastern city of Daegu, its main coronavirus epicenter.
In Japan, the lower house of Parliament, the Diet, on Friday approved a measure giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the government greater leeway to institute emergency measures, such as closing schools. New infections rose Friday afternoon with the addition of eight more cases.
More than 11,300 cases have been reported in Iran. A team of WHO experts who traveled there said they're encouraged by Tehran's efforts, saying they are "evolving in the right direction."
Australia increased its travel advisory to Level 3 Friday and urged the public against traveling overseas.
"We advise all Australians to reconsider your need to travel overseas at this time, regardless of your destination, age or health," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Friday. "If your travel is not essential, consider carefully whether now is the right time."
Morrison, who on Thursday unveiled an $11 billion stimulus package to counter the economic harm of the coronavirus, also called for gatherings of more than 500 people to be canceled as a precautionary measure.