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Coronavirus Update: Masks And Temperature Checks In Hong Kong

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the coronavirus outbreak that is believed to have started in the Chinese city of Wuhan. More than 2,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, and 56 people have died. The most affected province in China is seeing travel restrictions that are believed to be affecting some 46 million people. And a third case has just been confirmed here in the United States in Orange County, Calif. At least six of the infected cases are in Hong Kong, and that's where NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien is to give us the latest.

Good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the latest in China and Hong Kong? I mean, we're just seeing some astonishing reports.

BEAUBIEN: We are. And China continues to put in place even more travel restrictions. It's now shutting down long-haul bus service not just out of Wuhan, but out of several other provinces. Authorities are frantically trying to erect this new hospital in Wuhan out of prefabricated buildings. They claim they're going to have that up by the end of the week. And cases continue to rise pretty dramatically in China.

And here in Hong Kong, health officials say that they are stretched to the limit. I just came out of a press conference with one of the top people from the Hong Kong Health Department and another top official from the Hospital Authority, and they're putting in a bunch of new measures just to try to manage this crisis. And they're forcing nurses to work two weeks straight and then get one day off before having to return back to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, those are extraordinary precautions. I mean, it sounds like they're taking this extremely seriously, even though they've only had six cases so far. Why?

BEAUBIEN: The issue is that everyone who comes into a hospital in Hong Kong today has to get screened for this. They have to think that maybe this is one of these coronavirus carriers. And so they have to be isolated at first, and then they run these relatively complicated tests to confirm whether or not they do or don't have that virus. There's only so many staff that can actually do these tests, and they're being asked to do a hundred a day, is what they're saying. Yeah. It's really stretched things to the limit. And we're, as you say, just six cases so far.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were also able to get into a hospital, I understand, to see what things look like inside. What can you tell us?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I stopped by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital here in Hong Kong earlier today. The emergency room - it wasn't overflowing, but it was very busy. And everybody is in masks. The people behind the counters are in masks. The people who are in the waiting areas are in masks.

But the nurses had set up a triage station right in the middle of the waiting room that was obviously a - something new that they had put forward there. And they were dressed almost like they would be for an Ebola outbreak, covered head to toe in protective gear. And then they had these face shields - these wraparound plastic face shields to make sure that, you know, if somebody does just walk in off the street, they will be protected against them.

Authorities are very worried about what they call an invisible patient, someone who comes in and doesn't seem to have a fever and might slip through the cracks and actually end up on a ward and not be isolated and end up basically spreading it to a lot of other people in the wards, including staff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were out reporting today. What else did you see and hear? And also, give us some context as to why this particular coronavirus is so frightening.

BEAUBIEN: It's frightening because we know so little about it. We don't know exactly how it spreads. We don't know how deadly it actually is going to be. I went out today to the train station and talked to people who were coming off of trains from mainland China. And people are describing just these chaotic scenes. People are terrified. People just want to get out of there. I talked to this one guy from Canada who had just gone over to visit his relatives. He was there for two days, and he planned to spend a week and just turned around and took the next train back down here to Hong Kong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien in Hong Kong. Thank you and stay safe.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.