The first evacuations of foreign nationals from China took place Wednesday as the U.S. reportedly considers banning all airline flights between the two countries.
White House officials reportedly told U.S. airline executives at a meeting Tuesday the administration has not decided yet to impose a ban, but it is continuing to assess the situation.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday about whether a broad travel ban to China is being considered, “The State Department constantly evaluates the risk to travelers.” He added, “We will evaluate it on a continuous basis, literally hour by hour.”
As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak rose to 132 people and the number of confirmed cases increased to more than 6,000, surpassing China’s 2002-03 SARS outbreak, the pace of evacuations from mainland China increased.
A U.S. chartered jet took about 200 Americans from Wuhan, China, to Anchorage, Alaska, where they each passed a rescreening before continuing to the western U.S. state of California.
WATCH: As Coronavirus Outbreak Expands, Airlines Suspend Flights to China
Another chartered jet flew 206 Japanese nationals from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, to Tokyo's Haneda airport Wednesday. Japanese officials told reporters in Tokyo that 12 of the passengers were taken to a hospital after complaining of feeling ill. Medical personnel were on board the flight to screen the passengers before takeoff and again when the plane landed.
Japanese officials also said it was sending a second charter flight Wednesday evening to evacuate more nationals from Wuhan.
Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia and other nations also have announced plans to evacuate their citizens out of Wuhan this week.
British Airways announced Wednesday that it was suspending all direct flights to and from the mainland.
German flagship airline Lufthansa said Wednesday it was canceling all flights to and from mainland China until February 9, a move that also applies to subsidiaries Swiss International Air Lines and Austrian Airlines.
Hong Kong is suspending all high-speed rail and ferry services from the mainland beginning Friday, while the territory and Malaysia have banned entry to visitors from Wuhan. Mongolia has closed its vast border with its neighbor.
United Airlines, a major American airline, announced Tuesday it is suspending flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai from Feb. 1 through Feb. 8.
A United Airlines pilot who will be on the last flight out of Beijing told VOA that he and other company personnel who will accompany him are taking precautions. The pilot said his food consumption in China will be limited to goods he has packed in his suitcase, and that he and his colleagues would remain in their hotel rooms during their stay.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, said all flights to China would be suspended Wednesday and train service would be canceled Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning against nonessential travel to China.
The World Health Organization said it would hold another emergency meeting Thursday to decide whether to declare an international health emergency. WHO official Michael Ryan told reporters Wednesday in Geneva that an emergency declaration could help streamline global response measures.
Authorities have imposed a virtual quarantine on Wuhan, banning people from traveling into or out of the city. Several other cities in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, are facing heavy restrictions on movement. Wuhan is racing to complete two new field hospitals to treat the growing number of patients. The virus is believed to have emerged late last year at a Wuhan seafood market illegally selling wildlife.
Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an epidemic response expert at Kings College London, applauded China’s efforts to contain the virus.
“It’s a very good effort and hopefully it will reduce the spread of the virus, but I think it’s not going to be feasible for China to quarantine every single one of its cities,” MacDermott said in an interview with VOA’s Mandarin service. “And so we as a public health authority here in the U.K. and every public health authority needs to be prepared to deal with a case if they arrive in their country and to try and identify them promptly, and isolate them and treat them promptly to try and reduce ongoing transmission in their country.”
The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday confirmed that a family who had recently arrived from Wuhan was diagnosed with the new coronavirus, making these people the first confirmed cases in the Middle East. The UAE has now joined a list of more than a dozen countries with confirmed cases of the virus, including Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. The World Health Organization says most of those are people who had a travel history in Wuhan, with several others having contact with someone who traveled there.
The virus hit China just as it was beginning celebrations to mark the Lunar New Year, resulting in the canceling or the scaling back of festivities for tens of millions of Chinese. Chinese officials took an extra step Sunday to extend the Lunar New Year holiday three days to cut down on group gatherings.
There have been no reported deaths linked to the virus outside China.
Chinese President Xi Jingping vowed the country would conquer the coronavirus outbreak during his meeting Tuesday in Beijing with Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, according to state-run news outlets. Xi was quoted telling Ghebreyesus that "we cannot let this devil hide."