Virus death toll soars as China changes counting methods


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China’s official death toll from the new coronavirus spiked dramatically on Thursday after authorities changed their counting methods, fuelling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.
As the figures soared in China, a troubling new front opened abroad as neighbouring Vietnam placed 10,000 people under quarantine after six COVID-19 cases were discovered in a cluster of villages — the first such lockdown overseas.
Japan reported its first death of an infected person — the third fatality outside mainland China after the Philippines and Hong Kong.
Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, China’s Communist Party sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.
The developments came hours after President Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed 1,367 people and infected nearly 60,000.
In Hubei and its capital Wuhan, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported on Thursday.
Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected in Hubei alone, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.
Outside Hubei, there were 12 more deaths but the number of new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients.
Hubei authorities said the increases were because they had broadened their definition for infection to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.
Up until now, they had solely confirmed cases with a more sophisticated laboratory test.
Health officials said they looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting older cases were also included in Thursday’s numbers.
“It is better to clinically diagnose and admit patients … than leaving room for doubt,” Tong Zhaohui, vice president at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, said at a press conference organised by the Hubei government.
The World Health Organization said it is normal for case definitions to “adapt to improved understanding” of a newly emerging infectious disease, and Hubei’s updated numbers include earlier cases.
“The government has re-doubled efforts recently to address the scale of the outbreak in Hubei and the considerable need for treatment services by the population” the WHO said in a statement.
The revision “allows patients to… access treatment more quickly”, it said.
China had been praised by the WHO for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS virus epidemic in 2002-2003.
But it has faced continued scepticism among the global public, with fears that there may be similarities to the way it dealt with SARS.
Criticism intensified after the death of a doctor who had tried to raise the alarm about the outbreak in December, but was silenced by authorities.