Authorities in China have imposed indefinite travel restrictions on tens of millions of people across ten cities in an unprecedented effort to contain the spread of a deadly new coronavirus, as hospitals at the epicenter of the outbreak struggle to handle a surge in new patients.
The virus, which was first discovered in the city of Wuhan in December, has spread to every province in China, except the remote autonomous regions of Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, with the number of infections rising to 846 worldwide.
As of Friday, the virus had claimed the lives of at least 26 people in mainland China, including a 36-year-old man not listed as having any pre-existing conditions.
Wuhan, the largest and most populous city in central China, remains under lockdown for a second day, while public transport has been suspended in nine neighboring cities. Around 30 million people could be affected.
Posts on social media show an atmosphere of fear and anxiety among those inside Wuhan, amid rising uncertainty over the ability of authorities to handle the potential epidemic.
People spoke of sick family members turned away from hospitals due to a lack of beds, or wards packed with feverish patients and limited screening or quarantine.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission acknowledged in a statement that there were a shortage of beds and long outpatient queues in the city. In response, it said seven hospitals will now be used solely for fever patients and more than 3,000 beds will be made available for suspected and confirmed cases of the virus.
On Friday, Chinese authorities announced they would construct a 1,000-bed dedicated pneumonia hospital in the city within six days to help treat the hundreds of people affected by the virus. According to state-backed newspaper Beijing News, the hospital will be a prefabricated, box-type model that can be built in the short time frame.
A similar hospital was built during the SARS epidemic in 2003 in Beijing. According to the paper, the dedicated SARS hospital treated almost 700 patients, and had a mortality rate of 1.18%, far below the national average.
In the meantime, hospitals have asked for donations of medical supplies, including masks, medical gloves and protective suits.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) moved to declare the new coronavirus an emergency within China, but has so refrained from classifying the outbreak as an epidemic of international concern.
Mounting evidence suggests the virus is spreading outside mainland China, however, with various countries and territories reporting their first cases, including the United States.
Cases of the virus have been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam.
Three people were tested for suspected coronavirus in Scotland, "as a precautionary measure only" after traveling from Wuhan, a government spokesperson said. Cases are also under investigation in Canada and Australia, health officials said.