Xi makes 1st visit since outbreak to China's epicenter Wuhan

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BEIJING (AP) — President Xi Jinping on Tuesday made his first visit to the central Chinese city hit hardest by the new virus epidemic since the first cases of a then-unidentified respiratory illness emerged in December.

The disease's spread in China cast scrutiny on Xi’s leadership, as he was conspicuously absent from the public eye during the early days of the crisis. Initial failures to react quickly were pegged on municipal and provincial-level officials who have since been replaced.

State media reported Xi arrived in the morning in Wuhan, which has been under lockdown along with several nearby cities since late January in a disease-containment measure. The city has the bulk of the country’s more than 80,000 confirmed cases and authorities sent thousands of medical workers and built several prefabricated isolation wards to deal with the mass of COVID-19 patients.

Xi will inspect the epidemic prevention and control work and visit medical workers, community volunteers, patients and others on the front lines, state media said. Amid questions about Xi’s involvement, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had visited Wuhan in late January.

While China still has the majority of the world's cases, its proportion is shrinking as the epidemic expands, especially in Europe and the Middle East. The battle to halt the coronavirus has brought sweeping new restrictions, with Italy expanding a travel ban to the entire country, Israel ordering all visitors quarantined just weeks before Passover and Easter, and Spain closing all schools in and around its capital.

“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The great advantage we have is the decisions we all make as governments, businesses, communities, families and individuals can influence the trajectory of this epidemic.”

More than 113,000 people have been infected with the virus, and more than 4,000 have died of the COVID-19 illness it causes. More than 63,000 people have already recovered. But Italy's intensifying struggle to halt the virus' spread emerged as a cautionary tale.

“There won't be just a red zone,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, in announcing that a lockdown covering about 16 million people in the north would be expanded to the entire country starting Tuesday.

Italian doctors celebrated one small victory after the first patient diagnosed with the illness, a 38-year-old Unilever worker, was moved out of intensive care and began breathing on his own. But the virus' rapid spread was forcing them to operate like war-time medics, triaging patients to decide who get access to scarce ICU beds.

“Unfortunately we’re only at the beginning,” said Dr. Massimo Galli, head of infectious disease at Milan’s Sacco hospital.

Travelers at Milan’s main train station had to sign police forms self-certifying that they are traveling for "proven work needs,’’ situations of necessity, health reasons or to return home. Ski lifts were ordered to close after students whose classes were canceled began organizing trips to winter resorts.

Italy's 9,172 cases and 463 deaths are the second-most in the world. China on Tuesday recorded just 19 new cases over the previous 24 hours, its lowest total since it began reporting national figures on Jan. 20. China has registered 80,754 cases in total and 3,136 deaths as of Tuesday.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. It can progress to serious illness including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.

The apparent subsiding of China's outbreak came only after authorities there imposed massive quarantines, which are still largely in place. Other virus-hit countries are embracing less strict, but still aggressive measures.

Israel will quarantine anyone arriving from overseas for 14 days, a decision coming barely a month before Easter and Passover.

All St. Patrick's Day parades were canceled in Ireland, including one in Dublin that typically draws half a million to its streets.

All schools in and around Madrid will close for two weeks. The rising number of cases around Spain's capital “imply a change for the worse,” the country's Health Minister Salvador Illa said.

Trying to send a message of confidence in the economy, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife walked on Paris’ Champs-Elysees avenue. “I’m shaking hands using my heart,” he said as he waved to people while keeping a 1-meter distance from passersby.

Infections were reported in more than half the world’s countries, and flashpoints were erupting around the globe.

“We are working for valuable time, time in which scientists can research medicines and a vaccine” and in which governments can help stock up on protective equipment, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has reported over 1,100 cases and, as of Monday, its first two deaths.

Iranian state television reported another 43 deaths, pushing the official toll to 237, with 7,161 confirmed cases. But many experts fear the scope of the illness in Iran is far wider than reported. South Korea reported 35 more cases, bringing its total to 7,513.

In the United States, where more than 600 infections and 26 deaths have been reported, the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland, California, for its passengers to head for a 14-day quarantine in the U.S. or their home countries. At least 21 people aboard are infected.

In Washington, the Capitol's attending physician's office said “several” members of Congress had contact with a person who attended a recent political conference and subsequently developed COVID-19. They “remain in good health,” the office said. Three members of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz and Reps. Doug Collins and Paul Gosar, are quarantining themselves after determining they had contact with the person.

After earlier closing its land borders, Saudi Arabia cut off air and sea travel to and from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, South Korea, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. All Saudi schools and universities closed beginning Monday.

Qatar cut off travel to 15 countries and said it would shut down schools and universities beginning Tuesday.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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