BEIJING • China raised the death toll from the coronavirus epidemic to 811 yesterday, passing the number killed globally by the Sars epidemic, as the authorities made plans for millions of people returning to work after an extended Chinese New Year break.
The country's National Health Commission recorded another 89 deaths, pushing the total well above the 774 who died from Sars, or the severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2002-2003.
Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198, commission data showed.
New infections recorded the first drop since Feb 1, falling below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Among the latest deaths, 81 were in Hubei, where the virus has infected most people by far. New deaths in Wuhan, Hubei's capital, saw a rare decline.
Epidemiology professor Joseph Eisenberg of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said it was too early to say whether the epidemic was peaking.
"Even if reported cases might be peaking, we don't know what is happening with unreported cases," he said. "This is especially an issue in some of the more rural areas."
Finance Minister Liu Kun said yesterday that China has spent 31.6 billion yuan (S$6.3 billion) to control the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Many of China's usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.
Even today, a large number of workplaces and schools will remain closed and many white-collar employees will work from home.
China's Cabinet said yesterday it would coordinate with the transport authorities to ensure the smooth return to work of employees in key industries such as food and medicines. The State Council's special coronavirus group also said workers should return in "batches", rather than all at once, to reduce infection risks.