Chinese health officials announced Wednesday that a new coronavirus has killed 17 people in the country, a sharp increase from the nine fatalities that were reported earlier.

The announcement was made by China’s health commission, according to state media reports that cited provincial officials.

Authorities said the deaths occurred in China’s Hubei province and that there were 440 confirmed cases of the virus in 13 provinces.
 
The higher death toll was announced as the World Health Organization holds an emergency meeting Wednesday on the outbreak that has sickened 440 people across China and beyond.

The global health agency says it is considering whether the outbreak, which originated in the central city of Wuhan, should be declared a global health emergency.

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Chinese health officials urged people in Wuhan to avoid crowds, as the number of confirmed cases of deaths and infections continued to rise.

Fifteen medical workers are among those who have been infected by the virus, which has spread from Wuhan into Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province, as well as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and the United States.

The U.S. announced its first case Tuesday in the northwestern state of Washington. Health officials there said a man who returned to Seattle from Wuhan last week is hospitalized in good condition with pneumonia.

President Donald Trump assured reporters during a press conference in Davos, Switzerland Wednesday that U.S. officials "have a plan" to deal with the new outbreak, praising experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "terrific, very great professionals, and we're in great shape."

Chinese health experts say they know little about the new strain, dubbed 2019-nCoV. They suspect the outbreak started in a Wuhan seafood market, which also sold other animals such as poultry, bats, marmots, and wild game meat.  

China's National Health Commission announced Monday that the virus, which causes a type of pneumonia, can be transmitted person-to-person and not just from animals to people.  

Airports around the world have begun screening travelers from Wuhan for any detection of the virus.  Health experts are especially concerned about the chance of a pandemic as millions of Chinese citizens plan to travel across the country and overseas for the Lunar New Year holiday that starts Saturday.

A coronavirus is one of a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS, which also started in China, killed nearly 800 people globally during an outbreak nearly 20 years ago.