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Coronavirus Cases Seemed to Be Leveling Off. Not Anymore.

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The news seemed to be positive: The number of new coronavirus cases reported in China over the past week suggested that the outbreak might be slowing — that containment efforts were working.

But on Thursday, officials added more than 14,840 new cases to the tally of the infected in Hubei Province alone, bringing the total number to 48,206, the largest one-day increase so far recorded. The death toll in the province rose to 1,310, including 242 new deaths.

The sharp rise in reported cases illustrates how hard it has been for scientists to grasp the extent and severity of the coronavirus outbreak in China, particularly inside the epicenter, where thousands of sick people remain untested for the illness.

Confronted by so many people with symptoms and no easy way to test them, authorities appear to have changed the way the illness is identified.

Hospitals in Wuhan, China — the largest city in Hubei Province and the center of the epidemic — have struggled to diagnose infections with scarce and complicated tests that detect the virus’s genetic signature directly. Other countries, too, have had such issues.

Instead, officials in Hubei now seem to be including infections diagnosed by using lung scans of symptomatic patients. This shortcut will help get more patients into needed care, provincial officials said. Adding them to the count could make it easier for the authorities to decide how to allocate resources and assess treatment options.

But the change also shows the enormous number of people in Hubei who are sick and have not been counted in the outbreak’s official tally. It also raises the question whether the province, already struggling, is equipped to deal with the new patients.

The few experts to learn of the new numbers on Wednesday night were startled. Lung scans are an imperfect means to diagnose patients. Even patients with ordinary seasonal flu may develop pneumonia visible on a lung scan.

“We’re in unknown territory,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.