South Korea and China each reported hundreds more virus cases Thursday as the new illness persists in the worst-hit areas and spreads beyond borders.
South Korea reported 334 more cases, bringing its total to 1,595. Most of the new cases were in the country's fourth-biggest city, Daegu, where the outbreak has hit hardest and the national government has mobilized public health tools to assist the region's overwhelmed medical system.
But there are signs the virus is spreading further in South Korea with 55 cases reported so far in the capital, Seoul, and 58 in the second-largest city, Busan. The country also confirmed its 13th death Thursday, with most in and near Daegu.
China reported 433 new cases along with 29 additional deaths on the mainland. Thursday's updates bring the country's totals to 78,497 cases, and 2,744 deaths.
Of the new cases, 383 were in the epicenter of the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December. Wuhan also accounted for 19 of the new deaths.
Global worries about the COVID-19 illness were multiplying, as the epidemic expanded geographically and for the first time caused more new cases outside China than inside the country. With Brazil on Thursday confirming Latin America's first case, the virus has reached every continent but Antarctica.
"The sudden increases of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.
In Europe, where Germany, France and Spain were among the places with a growing caseload, an expanding cluster of more than 440 cases in northern Italy was eyed as a source for transmissions.
In the Middle East, where cases increased in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq, blame was directed at Iran, which had 19 deaths, the highest toll outside China.
And in the United States, which has 60 cases, President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. was "very, very ready" for whatever threat the coronavirus brings, and he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of overseeing the country's response.
Shortly after Trump spoke, health officials identified what could be the first community spread U.S. case. The patient in California was not known to have traveled to a country with an outbreak or had ties to a known patient. Most of the previously confirmed U.S. cases had traveled to China, were evacuated from the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship, or were family members of those cases.
Though the virus pushed into countries both rich and poor, its arrival in places with little ability to detect, respond and contain it brought concern it could run rampant there and spread easily elsewhere.
"We're going to be trying to slow down the spread so that our hospitals are not overwhelmed in one big gulp, one big hit," said Ian Mackay, who studies viruses at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Saudi Arabia announced precautions including temporarily stopping tourists from places with confirmed outbreaks from entering the country, as well as pilgrims coming for the Umrah or to visit the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
Major gatherings around the world were eyed warily, with schools closing, churches moving services online, food deliveries booming and many business conferences and sporting events canceled. Looming largest of all are the Olympic Games, whose opening ceremonies are scheduled for July 24 in Tokyo. Japan's top government spokesman said Olympics preparations would proceed and the games would go on as planned.
After many countries restricted travel from China to try to prevent the illness from spreading, China itself is now heavily regulating arrivals from abroad. State broadcaster CCTV reported South Koreans were being monitored after detecting fevers in five arrivals.
China's National Health Commission is also investigating how a released prison inmate from Wuhan evaded strict travel bans and arrived in Beijing on Feb, 22 after developing a fever five days earlier. Hundreds of prisoners have been sickened by the virus, some likely infected because guards used the same bus station as workers at a pulmonary hospital.
A utility company will pay the largest criminal fine ever imposed for breaking a federal pipeline safety law — $53 million — and plead guilty to causing a series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes, federal officials said Wednesday.
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has agreed to plead guilty to violating the Pipeline Safety Act and pay the fine to resolve a federal investigation into the explosions that rocked three communities in the Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in September 2018.
"Today's settlement is a sobering reminder that if you decide to put profits before public safety, you will pay the consequences," FBI Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said.
The company said in an emailed statement that it takes full responsibility for the disaster.
"Today's resolution with the U.S. Attorney's Office is an important part of addressing the impact," the company wrote. "Our focus remains on enhancing safety, regaining the trust of our customers and ensuring that quality service is delivered."
The company's parent, Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc., also to sell the company and cease any gas pipeline and distribution activities in Massachusetts. Any profit from the sale of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will be handed over to the federal government.
Eversource announced later Wednesday that it has agreed to buy the company's natural gas assets in Massachusetts for $1.1 billion.
"We knew that one of the things those communities wanted was for Columbia Gas to simply go away," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters. "The tragedy was to such an extent that it would be extremely difficult for the populations in those towns to trust this company going forward, so that was one of our priorities when we struck this deal," he said.
The explosions and fires outraged the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, where thousands of homes and businesses went without gas service for weeks, and months in some cases, during the winter. Residents and public officials lashed out at the company for not adequately responding and called for officials to be held accountable.
Leonel Rondon, 18, died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend's home — hours after he had gotten his driver's license. About two dozen others were injured, and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.
A series of class action lawsuits stemming from the explosions has settled for $143 million. The settlement awaits final approval from a judge.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera praised the plea deal, saying it will be a "great day" when Columbia Gas no longer exists.
"This agreement will bring some much needed solace to those affected," he told reporters.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the explosions on overpressurized gas lines, saying the company failed to account for critical pressure sensors as workers replaced century-old cast-iron pipes in Lawrence. That omission caused high-pressure gas to flood the neighborhood's distribution system at excessive levels.
Lelling said federal investigators found that Columbia Gas violated minimum safety standards for starting up and shutting down gas lines through a "pattern of flagrant indifference."
An internal company notice circulated in 2015 showed that the company knew that failing to properly account for control lines in construction projects could cause fires and explosions, officials said. Yet Columbia Gas cut corners to increase its bottom line, officials said.
The company didn't keep reliable records of control lines because it was too expensive, hired inexperienced and untrained workers, and didn't communicate with the city of Lawrence about construction projects, Bonavolonta said. Columbia Gas couldn't even give NTSB investigators an accurate picture of who its customers were in the immediate wake of the explosions, he said.
"This disaster was caused by a whole management failure at Columbia Gas," Lelling said.
Until Columbia Gas is sold, an independent monitor will ensure that the company is following state and federal laws, Lelling said.
The disaster prompted federal officials to call in September for every state to require that all natural gas infrastructure projects be reviewed and approved by a licensed professional engineer. The NTSB also recommended that natural gas utilities be required to install additional safeguards on low pressure systems like the one involved in the explosions.
Columbia Gas is scheduled to plead guilty on March 9.
Two men and a woman fired nearly 20 shots into a convenience store on Chicago's South Side, killing an 18-year-old woman and wounding four other people, police said.
The three walked up to Ali's Minimart around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, looked inside and opened fire, Interim Police Superintendent Charlie Beck said. All three fired shots, apparently without saying a word, he said.
"We know of no conversation. ... At this point, we don't have a motive," Beck said.
The three then sped off in a car.
Jaya Beemon, who apparently was shopping, was struck in the neck. She was pronounced dead at a hospital, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said.
Jaya Beemon's mother was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery and resisting a police officer. Authorities say officers were trying to clear the hospital's emergency room late Tuesday when Nyisha Beemon allegedly pushed an officer from behind, grabbed his vest and kicked him. In a statement Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois condemned the arrest, calling it ``puzzling and disconcerting," adding police chose the worst moment in the mother's life to arrest her.
A Chicago police spokesman said the department will review the circumstances of the arrest.
The four who were wounded include an 18-year-old woman shot in the back and taken in critical condition to the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Also being treated at hospitals were a 17-year-old girl shot in the arm, chest and ankle, a 19-year-old man shot in the leg and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and a 63-year-old man shot in the leg and taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he was reported stable.
Last month, two gunmen fired into a barbershop on the West Side, wounding five people, including three children. An East Chicago, Indiana, man was arrested Sunday in connection with that shooting.
President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that a widespread U.S. outbreak of the new respiratory virus sweeping the globe isn't inevitable even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections are coming.
Trump sought to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. is "very, very ready" for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings. Under fire about the government's response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the efforts.
"This will end," Trump said of the outbreak at a White House news conference. "You don't want to see panic because there's no reason to be panicked."
But standing next to him, the very health officials Trump praised for fighting the new coronavirus stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.
"We do expect more cases," said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Shortly after Trump spoke, the CDC announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected — someone in California who doesn't appear to have traveled abroad or been exposed to another patient. If the CDC confirms that, it would be a first in this country and a sign that efforts to contain the virus' spread haven't been enough.
"It's possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19," the CDC said in a statement.
More than 81,000 cases of COVID-19, an illness characterized by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, have occurred since the new virus emerged in China.
The newest case from California brings the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.
Trump credited border restrictions that have blocked people coming into the U.S. from China for keeping infections low so far. But now countries around the world — from South Korea and Japan to Italy and Iran — are experiencing growing numbers of cases. Asked if it was time to either lift the China restrictions, or take steps for travelers from elsewhere, he said: "At a right time we may do that. Right now it's not the time."
Trump spent close to an hour discussing the virus threat, after a week of sharp stock market losses over the health crisis and concern within the administration that a growing outbreak could affect his reelection. He blamed the Democrats for the stock market slide, saying, "I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves." And at one point he shifted to defend his overall record and predict a win in November.
A key question is whether the Trump administration is spending enough money to get the country prepared — especially as the CDC has struggled to expand the number of states that can test people for the virus. Other key concerns are stockpiling masks and other protective equipment for health workers, and developing a vaccine or treatment.
Health officials have exhausted an initial $105 million in emergency funding and have been looking elsewhere for dollars. Earlier this week, Trump requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the virus. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York countered with a proposal for $8.5 billion.
Trump told reporters he was open to spending "whatever's appropriate."
Trump compared the new virus repeatedly to the flu, which kills tens of thousands each year. The new coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 — most in China and none in the U.S. so far — but scientists still don't understand who's most at risk or what the actual death rate is.
Without a vaccine, CDC's Schuchat advised people to follow "tried and true, not very exciting" but important precautions: Wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay home when you're sick.
A day earlier, another CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, was even more blunt, telling Americans to get ready for some of the same steps as occurred during the 2009 flu pandemic, such as school closings. "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," she said.
The National Institutes of Health's top infectious disease chief cautioned a vaccine won't be ready for widespread use for a year or more. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said even if the virus wanes soon, it's "quite conceivable" that it might "come back and recycle next year." By then, he said, "we hope to have a vaccine."
"Instead of listening to public health and medical experts, the president has been downplaying the potential impact of the virus for over a month," said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Thompson added that putting Pence, "someone with no public health expertise, in charge of the response will not instill confidence with the American people and raises questions about the administration's ability to coordinate an effective response to a complex public health threat."
The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak.
Thursday's announcement came after South Korea reported 21 cases of a new coronavirus in its military and the U.S. military reported one case among its 28,500 troops in South Korea.
The announcement was jointly made by South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military in South Korea.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the allies will put off their drills in the first half of this year until further notice.
Kim said JCS chief Park Han-ki first proposed putting off the drills out of concerns of safety of South Korean and U.S. troops.
He said Robert Abrams, the chief of the U.S. military in South Korea, accepted Park's proposal after agreeing on the seriousness of the virus outbreak.
South Korea said Thursday it had more than 1,500 cases of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, the second-most behind China.
The cases among military personnel have put thousands of South Korean troops in quarantine. The U.S. has closed facilities on several bases to stop the spread of the virus.