BEIJING — China's leader on Saturday called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak's epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to stop the spread of an illness that has infected more than 1,200 people and killed 41.
President Xi Jinping's remarks, reported by state broadcaster CCTV, came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on the Lunar New Year holiday and underlined the government's urgent and ever-expanding efforts to bring the situation under control.
Travel agencies have also been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned China Daily reported, citing the China Association of Travel Services. Chinese tourists travel both domestically and internationally during the Lunar New Year holidays.
The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started and its 11 million residents are already on lockdown, banned most vehicle including private cars in downtown areas starting Sunday, state media reported. Only authorized vehicles to carry supplies and for other needs would be permitted after that, the reports said.
The city will assign 6,000 taxis to different neighborhoods, under the management of local resident committees, to help people get around if they need to, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper said.
In Hong Kong, city leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest one, and close primary and secondary schools for two more weeks on top of next week's Lunar New Year holiday. They will re-open Feb. 17.
Lam said that direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked. The outbreak began in the city in central China and has spread nationwide and overseas, fueled by millions of people traveling during the country's biggest holiday.
In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan's health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds. The city previously announced that construction of a hospital of the same size was underway and expected to be completed Feb. 3.
The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up. Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases Saturday and Japan, its third. France confirmed three cases Friday, the first in Europe, and the U.S. identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.
The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever and, in more severe case, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.
Most of China's provinces and cities activated a Level 1 public health alert, the highest in a four-tier system, the state-owned China Daily newspaper reported Saturday.
China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million, greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
The cities of Yichang, Suizhou and Jingzhou were the latest added to the list on Friday evening and Saturday.
In Hong Kong, where five cases of the illness have been confirmed, a marathon that was expected to draw 70,000 participants on Feb. 9 was canceled, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
China's biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year, unfolded Saturday in the shadow of the worrying new virus. Authorities canceled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist sites and movie theaters.
The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1,287. The latest tally, from 29 provinces and cities across China, included 237 patients in serious condition. Of the 41 deaths, 39 have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital city, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.
Most of the deaths have been older patients, though a 36-year-old man in Hubei died earlier this week.
Health authorities in the city of Hechi in Guangxi province said that a 2-year-old girl from Wuhan had been diagnosed with the illness after arriving in the city.
The Australian state of Victoria announced its first case Saturday, a Chinese man in his 50s who returned from China last week, and the state of New South Wales confirmed three more cases later in the day.
Malaysia said three people tested positive Friday, all relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in neighboring Singapore. It said a fourth case was a traveler from Wuhan who tested positive Saturday and was unrelated to the other cases.
Japan confirmed a third case, a Chinese tourist in her 30s who had arrived from Wuhan on Jan 18.
The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams from outside Hubei to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.
The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late Friday night to help treat the many patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, Xinhua reported.
Xinhua also said that medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits and 110,000 pairs of gloves from the central medical reserves as well as masks and goggles.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse, but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus.
It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. alone.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is expecting more Americans to be diagnosed with the virus.
The outbreak put a damper on Lunar New Year in China, the first day of the Year of the Rat.
Temples locked their doors, Beijing's Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations closed, and people canceled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.
“We originally planned to go back to my wife’s hometown and bought train tickets to depart this afternoon,” said Li Mengbin, who was on a stroll by the moat of the closed Forbidden City. “We ended up canceling. But I’m still happy to celebrate the new year in Beijing, which I hadn’t for several years.”
Associated Press researcher Henry Hou and video journalist Dake Kang contributed to this report.