More than 50 cases reported in northeastern region of Xinjiang, home to persecuted Muslim minority.
Health officials in China‘s hard-hit central province of Hubei reported on Thursday that 242 more people died from the coronavirus COVID-19 as of Wednesday – the highest in a single day and more than twice the previous record high – pushing the death toll across the country to 1,367.
The province’s health commission also reported a huge jump in new cases, saying a further 14,840 people had been confirmed with the infection over the 24-hour period to midnight on Wednesday (16:00 GMT).
As this developed, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday that the head of the Communist Party in the province of Hubei has been relieved of his post – the latest in a line of local officials fired.
Hubei is at the centre of the outbreak, which is thought to have originated in a now-closed seafood market in the capital of Wuhan late last year.
Former Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong has been appointed as the new secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, replacing Jiang Chaoliang, the report said, citing the party’s central committee.
The firings came shortly before the World Health Organization on Thursday cautioned that the recent spike in cases was the result of new counting methods used by officials, and did not represent a change in “trajectory” of the outbreak.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said: “It was expected that somebody’s head was on the chopping block.”
“There’s been a lot of criticism about the information not being so forthcoming” from Hubei officials, she added.
Earlier, the Communist Party chief of the health commission of Hubei, Zhang Jin, and its director, Liu Yingzi, were also replaced.
During the SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in China in 2003, the government also fired Zhang Wenkang as health minister and Meng Xuenong as mayor of Beijing. Zhang was replaced by Wu Yi, while Meng was replaced by his brother-in-law, Wang Qishan, who is now the vice president of China.
“There have long been calls for the step down of these officials, for their role in causing the outbreak. By removing them, the central leaders demonstrate their willingness to respond to public outcry as well as the resolve to address the crisis,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Hubei’s health commission said in a statement that it had begun including infections diagnosed through new clinical methods and had revised its old data and suspected cases. The latest death toll included more than 100 clinically diagnosed cases.
State media said last week that Hubei would start recognising computerised tomography (CT) scan results as confirmation of infections, allowing hospitals to isolate patients more quickly.
Total cases in the province have now reached 48,206, the commission data showed, pushing the total number nationwide to nearly 60,000.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Bin Song, director of the radiology department at Chengdu’s Huaxi Hospital, said he has received patients with “false negative” diagnosis, including one woman, who tested negative four times.
“Her clinical features are very typical of the coronavirus infection. We didn’t discharge her, because we still have enough beds and can’t run the risk of letting her infect someone else. And on the fifth try, the result finally came back positive,” he said.
He also pointed out that several “false negative” results might have been caused by the discrepancy in diagnostic kits being used.
“It’s likely there are different levels of quality, resulting in the lack of accuracy of the test result in some instances,” Bin said.
Another possibility is that throat swabs for the testing may not have been properly carried out he said.
“Sometimes the viral load in patient’s throats has not reached a level detectable in this test because some of them have infection mostly in the trachea.”
With the new CT scan testing, experts will also be looking at “distinct features” of the coronavirus, including the “ground-glass pacities in bilateral lungs”, he said. Ground-glass opacity refers to an area of increased depletion or fading in the lungs.
“If we detect that, along with fever, dry cough, and other symptoms, I think there will be a better chance of catching all the infected,” Bin said.
China’s national health commission is expected to provide an update on countrywide infections later on Thursday.
At least 25 countries have confirmed cases of the virus and several nations have evacuated their citizens from Hubei. Two deaths have been recorded outside mainland China – one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
With additional reporting by Shawn Yuan in Beijing, China