Asia Today: China's COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases rise

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A medical worker gives a coronavirus vaccine shot to a patient at a vaccination facility in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. A city in northern China is building a 3,000-unit quarantine facility to deal with an anticipated overflow of patients as COVID-19 cases rise ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING – China says it is now treating more than 1,000 people for COVID-19 as numbers of cases continue to surge in the country’s north.

The National Health Commission on Friday said 1,001 patients were under care for the disease, 26 of them in serious condition, and that 144 total new cases had been recorded over the past 24 hours. The province of Hebei, just outside Beijing, accounted for 90 of the new cases, while Heilongjiang province further north reported 43 new cases.

Nine cases were brought from outside the country, while local transmissions also occurred in the southern Guangxi region and the northern province of Shaanxi, illustrating the virus’ ability to move through the vast country of 1.4 billion people despite quarantines, travel restrictions and electronic monitoring of citizens.

While there have been no reports of hospital bed shortages, Hebei has begun constructing a new quarantine center outside the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang in anticipation of the need to monitor more possible cases.

Shijiazhuang has accounted for the bulk of cases in the province since the new year, and has been placed under virtual lockdown along with the cities of Xingtai and Langfang, a move largely confining more than 20 million people to their homes for coming days.

In all, China has reported 87,988 cases with 4,635 deaths.

The spike in northern China comes as World Health Organization experts prepare to collect data on the origin of the pandemic after arriving Thursday in the central city of Wuhan where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.

The politically sensitive investigation takes place amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

The WHO team’s visit was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.

The researchers are to be quarantined for 14 days and will be working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.

Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.

Other regional developments:

— Nepal has asked India for early provision of a coronavirus vaccine even as New Delhi has indicated that it may be some time before it starts meeting demand from abroad. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Brazil are among several countries looking for supplies from India, which has given clearance for the emergency use for the AstraZeneca vaccine and another developed by the Indian company Bharat Biotech. India has said as the vaccination process is just starting at home, it is too early to give a specific response on the supplies to other countries. India is launching its massive immunization drive on Saturday aimed at vaccinating 300 million people by August. Nepal’s government gave official permission Friday for emergency use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.