Coronavirus hotspots emerge in Chinese prisons, officials fired

A photo taken on Feb 20, 2020, showing doctors looking at a CT image at a hospital in Yunmeng county, Xiaogan city, in China's central Hubei province. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) - More than 500 cases of the new coronavirus have been detected in prisons across China, authorities said on Friday (Feb 21), prompting the sacking of a slew of officials.

Hubei, the hard-hit central province where the virus emerged late last year, said Friday that 271 cases were reported by its prisons on Thursday, including 220 that had previously not been known to provincial authorities.

Most of those cases were at the Wuhan Women's Prison in Hubei's capital, He Ping, director for prison administration at the Ministry of Justice, told reporters.

The warden of Wuhan women's prison had been removed for failing to prevent the outbreak, according to local Communist Party newspaper Hubei Daily.

Seven guards and 200 inmates also tested positive for the virus at Rencheng prison in eastern Shandong province, the provincial health commission said at a press conference.

Xie Weijun, head of Shandong's justice department, and seven other officials were sacked over the outbreak, officials said.

Wu Lei, director of Shandong's prison administration, said the new cases showed that "the implementation of our prevention and control measures have not been effective".

The central government has dispatched a team to launch a "comprehensive investigation" into the outbreak at Rencheng Prison, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Another 34 cases were found at Shilifeng prison in eastern Zhejiang province, leading to the ouster of its director and another official.

A policeman had "deliberately concealed" information about a visit to Wuhan - the epicentre of the outbreak - in mid-January and continued to work at the prison, said Xu Xiaobo, deputy director of the Zhejiang Provincial Justice Department.

"The policeman... was diagnosed with new coronavirus on Jan 29. He had worked long hours and has come into contact with many people, causing many prisoners to become infected," Xu said.

"All the cases were imported cases. All patients are observed in isolation, and all confirmed patients are sent for treatment," he added.

Xu said no deaths had occurred in the prisons because of the coronavirus.

One suspected case was found at the Hubei Juvenile Detention Centre, He said.

Hubei announced earlier on Friday that a total of 411 new cases of the virus were confirmed in the province on Thursday, but later revised its figure up to 631 to include the prison numbers.

The clusters came as Chinese authorities have pointed to a drop in officially reported new cases this week as evidence that quarantines and other drastic measures to contain the virus are working.

According to official figures, China has had more than 75,400 cases of the coronavirus and 2,236 people have died of the disease - known as Covid-19 - most in Hubei and its capital Wuhan where the virus emerged in a wildlife market in December.

Most of China remains paralysed over fears of contagion, with schools remaining closed and Beijing ordering those returning to the city to self-quarantine for 14 days.

New cases at two hospitals in the country's capital have also emerged.

Health officials said 36 patients, medical workers and family members have been infected with the virus at Beijing's Fuxing hospital, which has been partially sealed off since Jan 31.

An elderly woman receiving kidney treatment at Peking University People's Hospital also tested positive after two infected relatives visited her earlier this month, the hospital said.

The virus spreads through droplets disseminated by sneezing or coughing, highlighting the risks for large groups of confined people, possibly without adequate access to soap and water.

Members of China's Uighur minority living in exile have also warned of the risk of the coronavirus spreading in internment camps, where rights groups say more than one million people have been rounded up by authorities.

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