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Areas of Beijing Quarantined But SARS Epidemic Continues

By Joseph Kahn

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- China carried out a sweeping quarantine on Thursday on thousands of Beijing residents who have had contact with suspected carriers of a highly infectious respiratory illness, as the communist government began a resolute campaign to combat a national health crisis.

Isolation orders were imposed on homes, factories and schools where people who developed SARS symptoms lived, worked or studied. Communist Party cells in work units and neighborhoods ferried food and other basic necessities to people confined to their homes, while monitoring them to ensure they did not flee.

Authorities wrapped white-and-yellow crime-scene tape around a city block in northwestern Beijing, sealing more than 2,000 health workers and patients inside the Beijing University People's Hospital complex. Medical personnel there said by telephone that more than 70 staff members were suspected of having severe acute respiratory illness, or SARS, forcing the isolation of the facility.

“We’re stuck here and it feels very lonely,” Shen Danhua, 42, deputy head of the pathology department, said by telephone. She said she was isolated along with the rest of the staff, though her department has no SARS patients. “It's a strong step but maybe they should have been this serious earlier,” she said.

The new measures contributed to a growing sense of alarm around the capital, as residents stocked up on basic goods as if preparing for a prolonged siege. Reported deaths and infections continued to rise sharply, and dense crowds of temporary laborers descended on major train stations seeking emergency passage out of the city.

Nationally, China reported 125 more cases of SARS on Thursday, for a total of 2,422, the world’s highest. There were four more deaths, bringing the total to 110. However, in Guangdong province, where SARS originated, the World Health Organization reported that the number of new cases had begun to slow.

But Beijing continued to report the most new cases, at 89, down modestly from the 105 new cases reported the day before. The capital now has a total of 774 confirmed SARS patients, with many hundreds of others suspected of having the disease.

The figure is nearly 20 times higher than what Beijing was reporting five days ago, when the central government fired two top officials and vowed to begin to report accurately.

While SARS infections and even the broad quarantine orders on relatives or associates of suspected SARS patients probably do not affect more than about one-tenth of one percent of the people in this city of 14 million, the disease had ended any semblance of business as usual.

National and local news broadcasts were devoted almost entirely to SARS news and advice on how to prevent the disease. Shop fronts were shuttered across the city.