Germany in warning over a virus epidemic

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Medical staff in carry the first person infected with the coronavirus in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia out of an ambulance into the Liver and Infection Center of the University Hospital in Duesseldorf, Germany, Wednesday, Feb 26, 2020. (Guido Kirchner/dpa via AP)

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BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s health minister said Wednesday that the country was “at the beginning of an epidemic” as authorities in western Germany were conducting tests on dozens of people after confirming they had been in contact with a couple who contracted COVID-19.

A 47-year-old man was in a serious condition at Duesseldorf’s University Hospital. His wife, who works in a kindergarten, was also confirmed to have contracted the virus.

Germany, which has now reported 19 confirmed cases, has been braced for an increase after infection numbers in nearby Italy spiked last week

“We are at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic in Germany,” Jens Spahn told reporters.

The government said late Wednesday in a statement it would establish an emergency task force regarding the coronavirus outbreak.

Officials in North Rhine-Westphalia state said earlier Wednesday that the 47-year-old infected man was from Gangelt, near the Dutch border, and that he had been in contact with countless people in recent days, including during Carnival parties and while visiting a Cologne hospital for an unrelated health checkup.

The head of Cologne’s health department, Johannes Niessen, said the man had come into contact with 41 people, including several doctors and nurses, at least one of whom was showing symptoms of illness.

Stephan Pusch, who heads the district administration in Heinsberg, where the case occurred, said Wednesday that schools and kindergartens in the area would remain shut until Monday. He urged people who display symptoms of illness to stay at home and contact their doctors by phone.

In a sign of growing fears over the economic impact of the outbreak that has so far centered mainly on Asia, German airline Lufthansa said it was suspending recruitment of new staff, offering existing employees unpaid leave and expanding options for part-time work.

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