Coronavirus outbreak shuts 3 Chinese cities down

BEIJING — Millions of Chinese had to cancel travel plans and hunker down in their homes to avoid exposure to a new, mysterious coronavirus Thursday as three cities in central China went on lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly virus that has already claimed 17 lives.

Health officials in China said that as of Wednesday more than 570 cases of the coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV have been confirmed across China. New cases have also been popping up outside the country’s borders, including two new cases in neighboring Hong Kong and one in the U.S.

They are warning the virus could spread even further. Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) are expected to hold a press conference later on Thursday to announce whether it can be classed as a global emergency.

People across China told NBC News the virus has disrupted their travel plans — just as the country is getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, later this week, during which millions of people are expected travel both inside and outside China.

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China coronavirus outbreak spreads across regions
A traveler wears a face mask as he sits in a waiting room at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A fourth person has died in an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, authorities said Tuesday, as more places stepped up medical screening of travelers from the country as it enters its busiest travel period. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
A girl wearing a face mask sits among suitcases at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Travelers wearing face masks gather at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Staff in biohazard suits hold a metal stretcher by the in-patient department of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a novel coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Heightened precautions were being taken in China and elsewhere Tuesday as governments strove to control the outbreak of the coronavirus, which threatens to grow during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
Peatones con máscaras de protección en una zona comercial de Tokio, el jueves 16 de enero de 2020. (AP Foto/Eugene Hoshiko)
Health workers wear protective gear Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003, in Ward E3 of the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Hong Kong's New Territories, where 24 patients were quarantined after seven of its health workers developed flu-like symptoms, although none have tested positive for SARS. According to a hospital spokesperson five nurses and two health care assistants working in the hospital's Ward E3 developed symptoms such as coughs, sore throats and fevers on Friday. Hong Kong's health chief, Dr.Yeoh Eng-kiong, said that preliminary test results showed patients' samples did not contain coronavirus that causes SARS and researchers are trying to identify the cause of the illness. (AP Photo/Anat Givon)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Workers monitor screens for fever signs on passengers detected by infrared detectors at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk inside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk outside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk inside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 21: Chinese travellers wear protective masks as they arrive to board trains at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday and cases have been reported in other parts of Asia including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
YICHANG, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Travelers wearing protective masks walk outside a railway station in Yichang in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. China has stepped up the measures to control the spread of the new coronavirus that has infected hundreds of people in China.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 21: A Chinese girl wears a protective mask as her mother pushes her on a suitcase to board a train at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday and cases have been reported in other parts of Asia including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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Speaking by phone from Shandong province in eastern China, university student Li Tianxin said her family is has lost thousands of dollars after the virus forced them to cancel their travel plans.

“My family has prepared to go to Hainan [an island province of China] for the Spring Festival holiday, but worrying about the virus, we have to cancel all the flights and hotels,” the 21-year-old said.

Map: A deadly virus is spreading across the globe.

Chinese health officials said Wednesday the new coronavirus can spread via respiratory transmission, heightening fears of a growing epidemic.

Many Chinese were stocking up on face masks and avoiding crowded places like cinemas and shopping centers.

“I couldn't find any mask on the market for sale. I dare not go outside," said college student Du Sijia, 21, from Xiamen on China’s southeast coast. "I don't even dare to order takeaways because I'm afraid of the virus."

Image: A staff member checks the body temperature of a passenger after a train from Wuhan arrived at Hangzhou Railway Station in Hangzhou, China's eastern Zhejiang province

Gao Duan, 27, who works at a drama company in Tianjin, northeastern China, said he is also staying at home for the time being.

“Every year we gather together to dine out for New Year Eve, but this year I asked my parents to cancel it,” Gao said.

In China’s capital, Beijing, bank clerk Zi Xian said he would normally enjoy going to temple fairs and watching movies during the Spring Festival holiday, “but now I would mostly remain indoors and avoid big crowds.”

The city of Wuhan in central Hubei province, the ground zero in China's fight against the new coronavirus, has been in quarantine. The virus is believed to have originated in one of its animal markets.

 

As of Thursday morning, roads, trains and flights into and out of the city, home to 11 million people, have been locked down.

Reuters reported that state media broadcast images of one of Wuhan's transport hubs, the Hankou rail station, nearly deserted, with gates blocked.

Image: People walk past the closed Hankou Railway Station after the city was locked down following the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan

Authorities in Hong Kong stopped selling tickets for trains between the semi-autonomous territory and Wuhan Thursday, as two cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed there.

Also on Thursday, Chinese authorities have enacted similar travel restrictions in two more cities neighboring Wuhan — Huanggang and Ezhou.

“I support the lockdown of Wuhan," former hotel manager Yi Yi, 55, said while on a walk in Beijing. "It shows China has the ability and experience to control this outbreak."

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Chinese government officials were criticized for their handling of the SARS epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly 800 people in 2002-2003, accused of downplaying the full extent of the outbreak, but have so far provided regular updates on the spread of the new coronavirus this week.

Yi, who is from Henan province north of Wuhan, said he too had his travel plans ruined by the outbreak.

“My wife and I originally planned to go to Melbourne, Australia to visit our daughter, but we cancelled the plans due to this virus,” he said. “As a Chinese saying goes, good work usually stays indoors while scandals travel a thousand miles, so with regards to the virus China had to do something to deal with international criticism.”

Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing, Yuliya Talmazan from London.

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