BEIJING – The coronavirus epidemic shifted increasingly westward toward the Middle East, Europe and the United States on Tuesday, with governments taking emergency steps to ease shortages of masks and other supplies for front-line doctors and nurses.
“We are concerned that countries' abilities to respond are being compromised by the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment, caused by rising demand, hoarding and misuse,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We can't stop COVID-19 without protecting our health workers.”
Deaths in Italy surged to 79, making it the deadliest reported outbreak outside China. Twenty-three members of Iran's Parliament and the head of the country's emergency services were reported infected. South Korea expanded drive-thru testing and confirmed hundreds of new cases. And in Spain's Basque region, at least five doctors and nurses were infected and nearly 100 health care workers were being held in isolation.
The mushrooming outbreaks contrasted with optimism in China, where thousands of recovered patients were going home and the number of new infections has been dropping.
Worldwide, more than 93,000 people have been infected and over 3,100 have died, the vast majority of them in China. The number of countries hit by the virus exceeded 70, with Ukraine and Morocco reporting their first cases.
Virus clusters in the United States led schools and subways to sanitize and spread fears among nursing home residents, who are especially vulnerable. The number of the infections in the U.S. topped 100 and the death toll climbed to nine. All of the deaths were in Washington state, and most of them were residents of a Seattle-area nursing home.
The U.S. Federal Reserve announced the biggest interest-rate cut in over a decade to try to counter the expected damage to the economy, and stocks rose briefly on Wall Street in reaction before slumping again. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said the virus “will surely weigh on economic activity both here and abroad for some time.”
Other Group of Seven countries appeared reluctant to follow suit with their own cuts, probably because many of their interest rates are already near or below zero.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave health care workers the OK to use an industrial type of respirator mask often used to protect construction workers from dust and debris.
Iran's supreme leader ordered the military to assist health officials in fighting the virus, which authorities said has killed 77 people. Among the dead are a confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican and a recently elected member of Parliament.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, said some people are stockpiling medical supplies for profit and urged prosecutors to show no mercy. “Hoarding sanitizing items is playing with people’s lives, and it is not ignorable,” he said.
France's president announced the government will take control of current and future stocks of face masks to ensure they could go to health workers and coronavirus patients, and the finance minister warned that binge-shopping for household essentials could trigger shortages. The country reported a total of more than 200 cases and four deaths.
“In this period we’re going through — we have entered a phase that will last weeks and, undoubtedly, months -– it is indispensable to have clarity, resilience, sangfroid and determination to stop the epidemic” French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to the government's virus crisis center.
South Korea confirmed another 142 cases Wednesday morning, raising its total to 5,328, the second-highest in the world. At drive-thru virus testing centers, workers dressed head-to-toe in white protective suits leaned into cars with mouth swabs to check for the virus. Troops sprayed disinfectant on streets and alleys across the city.
In China, the count of new cases dropped again Wednesday, with just 119 reported. It is still by far the hardest-hit country, with over 80,000 infections and about 95% of the world's deaths.
“We scrutinized this data and we believe this decline is real,” said WHO outbreak expert Maria Van Kerkhove, who traveled to China as part of a team from the U.N. agency. She said the extraordinary measures taken there, including the lockdown of more than 60 million people, had a significant effect on the direction of the outbreak.
“We believe that a reduction of cases in other countries, including Italy, Korea, Iran, everywhere, that this is possible,” she said.
China's ambassador to the United Nations said the country is winning its battle against COVID-19. “We are not far from the coming of the victory,” Zhang Jun said.
In Japan, questions continued to build about the fate of the Olympics.
The country's Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, said Japan is “making the utmost effort” to proceed with the games' opening on July 24 in Tokyo. But she told parliament that the country's contract with the International Olympic Committee specifies only that the games be held in 2020, meaning they could be postponed to later in the year if necessary.
Hinnant reported in Paris. Contributors include Martin Crutsinger and Christopher Rugaber in Washington; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Maria Cheng in London; Matt Sedensky in Bangkok; Nicole Winfield and Frances D'Emilio in Rome; Aritz Parra in Madrid; Chris Grygiel in Seattle; Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Stephen Wade in Tokyo; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.