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China’s Xi defends response as coronavirus death toll increases

Health workers wearing protective gears sprayed disinfectant at a bus terminal in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday as part of efforts in several parts of the world to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Health workers wearing protective gears sprayed disinfectant at a bus terminal in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday as part of efforts in several parts of the world to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.YONHAP/AFP via Getty Images/AFP via Getty Images

BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Tuesday that his country is being ‘‘open, transparent, responsible’’ in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, as the number of cases continues to increase.

The World Health Organization said China had agreed to allow global health specialists into the country, and a top US health official said he offered to send a team from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to China. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar did not describe the Chinese health minister’s response but said he hopes that Beijing will accept the offer.

The death toll has risen to 106 in China, with more than 4,565 cases of infection. Other countries in the region also are reporting more people infected — nearly all of them tourists from China. Governments are facing the stark choice of whether to cut all contact with infected regions and take a massive blow to their economies or rely on increased screenings.

Meanwhile, a US State Department official told the Associated Press that a chartered plane sent to China to pick up Americans in the city of Wuhan was en route to the United States. Wuhan is the epicenter of the outbreak.

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The plane left Wuhan before dawn Wednesday, China time.

It’s first stop will be Anchorage, where the travelers will be rescreened for the virus. Hospitals have been notified and are prepared to treat or quarantine people who may be infected.

Then the plane is scheduled to fly to Ontario, Calif.

Xi defended his country’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic in a meeting with World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, even as the Chinese mayor at the epicenter of the outbreak apologized for withholding information from the public.

Calling the coronavirus a ‘‘demon,’’ Xi told Tedros that he would not ‘‘let a demon hide’’ as he vouched for his government’s ability to handle the crisis.

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In return, China’s official Xinhua News Agency described Tedros as praising Xi for ‘‘personally commanding’’ the outbreak response and ‘‘showing excellent leadership.’’

Although international specialists have largely praised the speed and methods with which Chinese scientists have carried out research into the novel virus, the Communist Party leadership has come under growing criticism about its handling of the epidemic in its critical early days and its politicization of the international public health response.

Xi’s meeting with the WHO chief came a day after the mayor of Wuhan triggered a firestorm by publicly suggesting that he had not been allowed to speak out earlier about the epidemic.

Also Tuesday, Hong Kong announced dramatic measures to stem the flow of mainland Chinese into the territory, closing two railways, ferries, and cross-border tour buses. Flights to mainland China will be slashed by half, and individual visas to Chinese will no longer be issued, starting Thursday.

The number of Chinese citizens on travel lockdown has increased to 54 million with the addition of Shiyan. China is attempting to seal off the epicenter, centered around Wuhan in Hubei province, and cutting all travel links.

Shiyan, the ‘‘Detroit of the East,’’ is an industrial city of more than 3.4 million known for its auto sector.

Several countries, including France, South Korea, Canada, Britain, and the United States are putting together plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.

Germany has reported its first case, while Thailand has confirmed six more cases, bringing its total to 14 amid calls by many Asian populations to close the borders to Chinese visitors. Infections have been confirmed in France, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada, and Sri Lanka.

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North Korea, which already banned foreign tourists from entering the country, has now imposed a one-month quarantine on any foreigners who come in, including diplomats and aid workers.

The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang said it had been informed by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry that ‘‘all foreigners’’ who have recently visited China will be isolated and kept under medical supervision for a month.

Russia has closed its border with China in three of its Far East regions amid fears of the outbreak, according to state-run news agency Tass.

It’s one of a number of precautions Russia has taken, though the country’s consumer safety regulator, Rospotrebnadzor, said Tuesday morning that there haven’t been any cases of coronavirus recorded there yet. The border crossings in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Khabarovsk, and Amur regions will be closed until Feb. 7.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote on his website Tuesday that monitoring of hotels and popular tourist sites has been heightened.

‘‘If any alarming signals are identified, medical brigades will be dispatched to these sites immediately to carry out all-round checks,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, blocked from traveling and encouraged to stay indoors, millions of Chinese have found an unusual way to pass the time: watching hospitals get built — in real time.

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On Tuesday, remarkable numbers of Chinese netizens watched grainy, wide-angle footage of workers flattening earth at the site of two temporary hospitals being built to treat the growing number of patients in Wuhan.

Facing public anger, authorities promised to build two hospitals in 10 days — a response calibrated to show resolve and showcase Chinese know-how. The live streams appear to be a nod to calls for transparency.