Coronavirus Update as Death Toll Over 2,700 Worldwide, Outbreak in Italy Spreads Across Europe

As new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus emerge, including one in which a U.S. soldier at a military base in South Korea tested positive for the virus, Americans have been told to prepare for the virus to spread in the U.S.

"It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore," but rather one of when, the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) warned on Tuesday.

Several countries have banned the entry of travelers from South Korea, which currently has the highest number of cases outside China, while mainland Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Croatia, and Austria have now also reported their first cases.

Most of the newly-infected in Europe stemmed from Italy, which has the third highest number of confirmed cases, after China and South Korea, following a recent surge over the past weekend. Iran has the highest death toll from the virus outside China so far, with the country reportedly having seen 15 deaths from the virus.

The deadly virus, first identified in Wuhan city in the province of Hubei, has now infected more than 80,000 people globally, with 77,780 cases confirmed in China alone, according to the latest report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday.

There are at least 2,459 cases across 33 countries reported outside China, with 34 deaths reported. China has seen at least 2,666 deaths from the virus, according to the report.

While the global health body noted on Monday that the virus "absolutely" has "pandemic potential," it has yet to declare it a pandemic, which is defined by WHO as "the worldwide spread of a new disease."

"For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or deaths," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Monday.

"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has," he said. "Are we there yet from our assessment? Not yet."

U.S. warned to prepare for an outbreak

"We expect we will see community spread in this country [U.S.]," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stated at a press briefing on Tuesday. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.

"The data over the last week, and the spread in other countries, has certainly raised our level of concern and raised our level of expectation" of community spread.

"We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad," she added.

There have been at least 57 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the CDC, most of which have been on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that saw more than 3,700 people quarantined in Japan for two weeks after a passenger from Hong Kong tested positive. The ship reported its fourth death from the virus this week.

The recent travel restrictions since earlier this month, moves which banned the entry of any foreign nationals who have traveled to China within the last 14 days, was said to have helped control the spread of the virus in the U.S., the country's Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, noted at a press conference on Tuesday. He added that there are no plans to ease the travel restrictions at this time, NBC News reports.

"The immediate risk to the general American public remains low. But, as we have warned, that has the potential to change quickly," he said. "The fact that we have been able to keep cases to this low level is an accomplishment, especially given that we are, unfortunately, beginning to see community spread in a growing number of other countries."

"Now is the time for US businesses, hospitals, and communities to begin preparing for the possible spread of #COVID19. CDC continues to work with business, education & healthcare sectors, encouraging employers to be prepared," the CDC stated in a post on its official Twitter account on Tuesday.

South Korea faces travel ban

South Korea has seen at least 253 new cases since Tuesday and 115 new cases since Wednesday morning, bringing the total number of infected to 1,261, according to the latest report by the Korea Centers for Disease Control.

Most of the infections have been concentrated in the city of Daegu and linked to a religious group known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ).

Concerns over the secretive cult being a major source of the recent rapid spread of the virus in South Korea were heightened after several cases were traced back to an infected woman who attended a SCJ service in Daegu.

Fears over the recent outbreak in South Korea have been growing, with various countries (including Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines) banning the entry of travelers from South Korea.

The Royal Caribbean cruise line is also rejected travelers from various countries that have been heavily affected by the virus, including South Korea, China, and Italy.

"We are closely monitoring global developments regarding the coronavirus, and we are fully focused on protecting the health and safety of our guests and crew. To comply with guidance from CDC, WHO and other public health authorities around the world, we are implementing several global measures to protect guests and crew," the company said on its website.

"Regardless of nationality, we [Royal Caribbean cruises] will deny boarding to: Any guest who has travelled from, to or through mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Iran, South Korea, and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto in the past 15 days.

"Any guest who has come in contact with anyone with 15-day prior travel to mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Iran, South Korea, and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto. The CDC characterizes contact with an individual as coming within six feet (2M) of a person.

"Guests who report feeling unwell or demonstrate any flu-like symptoms," the company states. Royal Caribbean has also canceled 30 of its cruise to Southeast Asia, Reuters reports.

Gyeongbokgung palace, Seoul, South Korea, Feb 2020
People in traditional Korean hanbok dresses wear face masks as they visit Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on February 23, 2020. Getty Images

On Wednesday, Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe announced the country's ban on foreign nationals who have been to Daegu (the epicenter of the outbreak in South Korea) and the Cheongdo County in the Gyeongsangbukdo province within the last 14 days, The Japan Times reported.

The government of the Philippines also announced on Wednesday that it would be banning the entry of any travelers from South Korea's Gyeongsangbukdo province and that a risk assessment would be conducted in the next two days to ascertain whether the ban should be extended to travelers from other parts of South Korea, according to Reuters.

On Tuesday, Singapore also announced it would be banning travel to all visitors who had recently traveled to Daegu and Cheongdo County and may consider further restrictions if the virus spreads further in South Korea, according to Reuters.

The U.S. CDC has also issued an elevated travel warning for South Korea, advising Amercians to "avoid all nonessential travel to South Korea," warning that "there is limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas."

The U.S. State Department also raised its travel warning for South Korea to Level 2, which advises travelers to "Exercise Increased Caution."

"Many cases of COVID-19 have been associated with travel to or from mainland China or close contact with a travel-related case, but sustained community spread has been reported in South Korea. Sustained community spread means that people in South Korea have been infected with the virus, but how or where they became infected is not known, and the spread is ongoing," the department warns on its website.

New coronavirus cases in Europe

Italy has been worst-hit by the deadly virus, following a recent spike over the weekend that has brought the total number of confirmed cases to more than 300, with 11 deaths, according to the BBC.

At least 11 towns in Italy within the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto have been on lockdown as the country attempts to contain the virus. A couple of cases were also reported in the south of Italy, in Tuscany and Sicily.

Several other European countries, including Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, and mainland Spain, have reported their first confirmed cases of the virus, all of which have been traced back to travelers from Italy.

A 38-year-old Greek woman traveling from a part of northern Italy has been infected, representative of Greece's ministry of health confirmed, according to Reuters.

A woman in Barcelona, Spain, as well as other cases in France and Germany, was reported to have traveled from northern Italy. An Italian couple in Austria have been quarantined in their home in Innsbruck, while nine others at a hotel where one of the infected pair works have also been quarantined, with the hotel on lockdown since Wednesday as a precautionary measure, the BBC reported.

In Switzerland, an elderly man in his 70s living in Ticino (which borders Italy) has been quarantined after being infected in Milan, while another man in Croatia. who traveled to Italy recently, became the first confirmed case in the Balkans.

Death toll rises in Iran

There have reportedly been 15 deaths in Iran from the virus (an increase from 12 as of Monday) and 95 total confirmed cases, Iran's ministry of health confirmed on Tuesday, CNBC reported.

The Middle Eastern nation now has the highest number of reported deaths from the virus outside China.

Fears were raised further after Iran's deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, tested positive for the virus just a day after claiming the virus is under control within the country.

Cases have also been reported across the region in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. The patients in all five countries reportedly had links to Iran, the Associated Press reported.

Concerns that Iran is ill-equipped to contain the spread of the virus have been made worse by the economic restrictions imposed by the U.S. on Iran.

"The U.S.' sanctions regime has severely impacted the access that Iranians have to life-saving medical supplies and will most likely hamper the Islamic Republic's ability to respond to the coronavirus efficiently," Naveed Mansoori, a co-editor of online Middle East magazine Jadaliyya's Iran Page, told Newsweek on Monday.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of the COVID-19 virus as of February 26.

statista, coronavirus cases, covid-19, 2019nCOV
A map showing locations where COVID-19 cases have been confirmed. Statista