China reports nearly 15,000 new coronavirus cases overnight. Here’s what that means

Masked shoppers in a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in central China's Hubei province on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Yuan Zheng/Utuku/Ropi/Zuma Press/TNS)
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By Alice Su Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — Health authorities in China’s Hubei province reported 14,840 new cases of coronavirus Thursday morning, bringing the nationwide total to nearly 60,000.

The daily count for Hubei — the epicenter of the epidemic — was more than nine times the 1,638 new infections reported there a day earlier.

The new numbers don’t indicate rapid overnight spread of the virus in Hubei, but a change in the way patients are counted there.

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Under new reporting requirements, cases are considered confirmed based on symptoms and a CT scan of the lungs.

Previously, confirmation depended on a laboratory test — a time-consuming requirement that left a large backlog of untested, suspected cases.

Many critically sick patients with symptoms but no confirmation of infection had complained that they were being turned away from hospitals. An unknown number have died from the viral disease — known as COVID-19 — without ever having been recorded as a confirmed case.

Nearly 90% of the new cases reported Thursday were “clinically diagnosed” patients, meaning they were confirmed under the new rules.

Wang Chen, dean of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, told Chinese media Thursday that the change in requirements was “extremely necessary” because the laboratory test — which detects a particular sequence of nucleic acids — was not accurate enough.

“Many patients who appeared to be (infected with COVID-19) based on their epidemiological history, contact history and clinical symptoms were not able to test positive on the nucleic acid test, and were listed as ‘suspected cases,’ ” he said.

He said the test kits often failed to accurately detect infections and suggested that the new criteria would provide a better measure of the epidemic’s scale.

Chinese authorities had been projecting optimism in recent days about the virus coming under control, pointing to a steady decrease in the rate of new confirmations.

The new numbers in Hubei appear to burst that bubble, bringing official statistics closer to reality.

It’s also possibly good news for many of the sick in Wuhan, the Hubei capital where the outbreak began, who have been unable to access hospitals without confirmed diagnoses — though there is still an urgent shortage of facilities, staff and medicals supplies.

Also Thursday, central authorities fired the Communist Party chiefs of both Wuhan and Hubei province, replacing them with high-ranking officials known for their background in “stability maintenance” and history of working closely with party chairman and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hubei’s party boss was replaced by Ying Yong, former mayor of Shanghai, while Wuhan’s party leader was replaced by Wang Zhonglin, party secretary of Shandong province’s capital, Jinan.

Central authorities are purging local officials in Hubei as public punishment for failing to control the epidemic early on. Local officials’ concealment of the outbreak’s severity and silencing of those who spoke up about it, including a doctor who later died from COVID-19, has sparked fury and demand for accountability across China.

Thursday’s changes follow the sacking of two top health officials in Hubei on Tuesday, the Communist Party secretary and director of the province’s health commission.

The political shakeup may have been timed to match the change in reporting standards, so that centrally appointed newcomers could be perceived as taking control and fixing the crisis, versus local officials who are now shouldering the blame for allowing the virus’ spread.

The change in reporting requirements has only been implemented in Hubei province, not the rest of China.

Hubei also reported 242 new deaths. The worldwide death toll now exceeds 1,300.

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