Prisons across three provinces in China revealed yesterday that coronavirus infections had spread in their inmate populations, prompting the local authorities to fire key officials involved and at least one province to revise its infection tally.
Altogether, 505 inmates and nine prison officers have been diagnosed with the disease, Covid-19, with another 20 suspected among the prison population.
The highest number is from Hubei province in central China, the epicentre of the outbreak, where 271 new infections were reported by the prison authorities on Thursday, including 220 that had previously not been known to the authorities.
This prompted local health officials to revise their count of new infections upwards.
Hubei Daily, the local Communist Party newspaper, reported that 230 cases were from a single correctional facility, the Wuhan Women's Prison. The warden has been removed for failing to prevent the outbreak.
The other 41 cases were reported in a facility in Shayang county.
In the eastern Shandong province, the head of the provincial justice department was sacked after it was discovered that seven guards and 200 inmates in Rencheng prison in Jining city had been infected.
Another 34 cases were found in Shilifeng prison in Zhejiang province, also in eastern China. The director and Communist Party chief were removed.
As of the end of Thursday, over 75,000 people had been infected in China with 2,236 deaths among them. Of those, 118 occurred on Thursday.
At a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday, the leadership said the outbreak has not yet reached its peak, state television reported.
"A turning point in the development of the national epidemic situation has not yet arrived," concluded the top decision-making body of the ruling Communist Party.
The situation in Hubei province and Wuhan city remains "severe and complex", it said.
It also said that all-out efforts should be made in Beijing, where the number of cases has risen sharply. Many other parts of the country beyond Hubei are meanwhile reporting fewer infections.
The new cluster of cases in the prisons, however, breaks a streak of 16 consecutive days of decline in new cases, excluding Hubei.
On Thursday, Hubei subtracted 200 from its new case tally after previously diagnosed cases returned negative lab tests. Last week, officials removed over 100 cases after patients had been "double counted".
Meanwhile, people were shaken by news of the deaths this week of two doctors who had treated patients, with Chinese media awash with condolence messages.
Dr Peng Yinhua, 29, died on Thursday after becoming infected while working at Wuhan's Jiangxia district People's No. 1 Hospital, reported the official Xinhua news agency, making him one of the younger victims of the virus.
It followed the death of senior neurosurgeon Liu Zhiming, director of Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, who died on Tuesday morning after he was infected with the virus, and ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who died on Feb 7. Dr Li, who also worked in Wuhan, had been censured for trying to bring the virus to light.
The Chinese authorities had previously said more than 1,700 medical workers have been infected by the coronavirus, with at least six deaths among them.
In Hong Kong, dozens of police officers were placed under quarantine after attending a banquet with a colleague who later tested positive for the virus.
The 48-year-old infected officer had dinner on Tuesday with 59 colleagues, police said. All have been classified as "close contacts" and ordered to undergo mandatory quarantine. Four officers as well as the infected policeman's wife and mother-in-law showed symptoms of illness.