A karate team fled coronavirus in Hong Kong to train for the Olympics -- and got infected in France

A karate team fled coronavirus in Hong Kong to train for the Olympics -- and got infected in France

CNN International·2020-04-21 12:14

Hong Kong (CNN)Lee Chun-ho has been preparing for the Olympics for the past four years. A karate athlete from Hong Kong, he has practiced the martial art all his life, and competed internationally from Madrid to Jordan.

Ahead of Tokyo 2020, karate was made an Olympic competitive category for the first time -- and Lee had his sights set on competing in Japan.

Then the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. Covid-19, which was first recorded in mainland China late last year, soon jumped the border into Hong Kong -- not wanting to take any chances, Lee and his team fled to Paris to train.

The French capital, they thought, would be a safe haven compared to the chaos unfolding in Asia. Instead, within a month the virus ripped through France and Europe, infecting Lee and several other team members.

With Tokyo 2020 now postponed until next year and their dream put on hold, Lee and his team have returned to Hong Kong, becoming part of the city's second wave of imported cases.

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Fleeing Hong Kong

Hong Kong confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on January 24, just as the virus was beginning to spread globally. In that week alone, ten countries and territories reported their first cases.

Spooked, Lee and his team decided to leave Hong Kong in early February, when infection rates were rising rapidly. The Olympics qualifier was set to take place in Paris in May, so they figured it would be safer to train there for three months, instead of risking being infected in Hong Kong -- or getting trapped in the city due to travel restrictions.

Olympics: IOC adds five new sports to Games for Tokyo 2020

The stakes felt particularly high: since this is the first time karate has been included in the Olympics, athletes globally are clamoring for a spot in the big debut.

"At that time, the cases in Hong Kong were increasing and everything was okay in Europe," Lee said in a video diary, recorded during isolation after his return to Hong Kong.

At first, everything seemed to be going according to plan. The team and their coach stayed at a camp with other French karate teams, living and training in the same facilities.

The risk of coronavirus seemed low, so they didn't take precautions. Every day they sparred and had close contact on shared mats; nobody wore a mask; there were no movement restrictions and daily life continued as normal. Even in early March, when the virus was devastating Italy, the team felt relatively safe -- after all, local Parisians were still moving about freely without masks.

View this post on Instagram

我跟幾位搏擊隊友準備三個月既長征去準備5月係巴黎舉行既奧運空手道外圍賽。🌍🥊🥋 - 感謝體院同教練臨時改變計劃做出呢個決定去全力配合我地。這段日子需要離開咁耐,一點都唔容易,因為每天都會有一點擔憂係香港既情況。 - 呢三個月好好準備,捉緊一個一生人只得一次既機會,爭取邁進所有運動員夢想舞台既一個機會🔥💥 Oss. 👊🏻🇭🇰 - #Tokyo2020 #Karate #空手道 #香港運動員 #DreamBelieveAchieve #leechunho #leehob #Fight

A post shared by Lee Chun Ho 李振豪 (Ho.B) (@leehob) on Feb 19, 2020 at 9:42pm PST

Lee says he now regrets that complacency.

The situation changed for the worse almost overnight. The death toll skyrocketed, the sports facility closed, and suddenly there were many times more cases being reported in France than Hong Kong. On March 13, when the French authorities announced 800 new cases within 24 hours, Lee's coach decided to take them back to Hong Kong.

'I've never felt bad like this in my life'

The team arrived back in the city on March 15, and their symptoms started almost immediately.

First, Lee noticed a cough and a sore throat. Two days later, he went to the hospital and tested positive for the coronavirus. By March 19, the symptoms had worsened to the point he couldn't sleep at night, with high fevers, headaches, and diarrhea.

"I've never felt bad like this in my life," he said. "I feel very tired and I can't move my body."

When two other team members and their coach also tested positive, doctors concluded they had likely been infected in Paris.

View this post on Instagram

尋日開始治療打左第一針同食葯,之後就開始發燒發左一晚加非常頭痛,醫生話係副作用黎。 今朝退左燒,精神既而家。 今日收到兩個好消息就係我未婚妻同其中一位同行隊友都係陰性🙏🏻🙏🏻 仲有我地空手道隊已經有隊友確定拎到奧運入場券。👏🏻👏🏻 現在還差另外兩位隊友既測試結果,希望所有人都會無事🤞🏻🤞🏻🙏🏻 - P.S. 因為我未必可以逐一PM,明白好多人擔心,所以我會係度update大家我既進度。🙏🏻🙇🏻‍♂️ - #covid_19

A post shared by Lee Chun Ho 李振豪 (Ho.B) (@leehob) on Mar 19, 2020 at 3:56am PDT

Lee took part in an experimental treatment, taking a cocktail of antiviral medications and injections. He continued to test positive even weeks later -- but his symptoms gradually subsided.

His teammates are also recovering, with some no longer testing positive or showing symptoms.

Still, Lee worried about the longer term consequences: if the virus damaged his or his teammates' lung function, it could affect their chances of competing in the future.

"I cannot explain how upset I was when I got the virus, because the purpose of the Paris training camp was to try and stay away from the virus, to stay focused and train and get ready for the Olympic qualifications," Lee said. "At the end of the day, I got the virus."

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A person wearing a face mask walks outside of a shopping mall in Beijing on March 11.

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Police officers restrain the relative of an inmate outside the Sant'Anna jail in Modena, Italy, on March 9. Riots broke out in several Italian jails after visits were suspended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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Medical staff in Wuhan, China, celebrate after all coronavirus patients were discharged from a temporary hospital on March 9.

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 9. Stocks plummeted as coronavirus worries and an oil price race to the bottom weighed on global financial markets.

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Rescuers search for victims at the site of a collapsed hotel in Quanzhou, China, on March 8. The hotel was being used as a coronavirus quarantine center.

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The Grand Princess cruise ship, carrying at least 21 people who tested positive for coronavirus, is seen off the coast of San Francisco on March 8. The ship was being held at sea.

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Sumo wrestlers attend a tournament in Osaka, Japan, that was being held behind closed doors because of the coronavirus outbreak.

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A couple rides a bicycle at a park in Seoul, South Korea, on March 7.

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A volunteer from Blue Sky Rescue uses fumigation equipment to disinfect a residential compound in Beijing on March 5.

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Airmen from the California National Guard drop coronavirus testing kits down to the Grand Princess cruise shipoff the coast of California on March 5.

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Municipal workers are seen at the Kaaba, inside Mecca's Grand Mosque. Saudi Arabia emptied Islam's holiest site for sterilization over coronavirus fears, an unprecedented move after the kingdom suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimage.

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Passengers react as a worker wearing a protective suit disinfects the departure area of a railway station in Hefei, China, on March 4.

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Teachers at the Nagoya International School in Japan conduct an online class for students staying at home as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.

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Soldiers spray disinfectant throughout a shopping street in Seoul.

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A Muslim worshipper attends a mass prayer against coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal, on March 4. It was after cases were confirmed in the country.

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People wear face masks in New York's Times Square on March 3. New York reported its first case of coronavirus two days earlier.

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A security guard stands on the Shibuya Sky observation deck in Tokyo on March 3.

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US President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, speaks during a meeting with pharmaceutical executives and the White House coronavirus task force on March 2. Throughout the meeting, Trump was hyperfocused on pressing industry leaders in the room for a timeline for a coronavirus vaccine and treatment. But experts at the table -- from the administration and the pharmaceutical industry -- repeatedly emphasized that a vaccine can't be rushed to market before it's been declared safe for the public.

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Medical staff stand outside a hospital in Daegu, South Korea, on March 1.

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Health care workers transfer a patient at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, on March 1. The long-term care facility is linked to confirmed coronavirus cases.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a London laboratory of the Public Health England National Infection Service.

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Tomoyuki Sugano, a professional baseball player on the Yomiuri Giants, throws a pitch in an empty Tokyo Dome during a preseason game on February 29. Fans have been barred from preseason games to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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Commuters wearing masks make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28.

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Medical staff transport a coronavirus patient within the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan on February 28.

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Inter Milan plays Ludogorets in an empty soccer stadium in Milan, Italy, on February 27. The match was ordered to be played behind closed doors as Italian authorities continue to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

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A bank clerk disinfects banknotes in China's Sichuan province on February 26.

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A child wearing a protective face mask rides on a scooter in an empty area in Beijing.

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A Catholic devotee wears a face mask as he is sprinkled with ash during Ash Wednesday services in Paranaque, Philippines, on February 26.

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People disinfect Qom's Masumeh shrine in Tehran, Iran, on February 25.

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A worker in Daegu stacks plastic buckets containing medical waste from coronavirus patients on February 24.

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Paramedics carry a stretcher off an ambulance in Hong Kong on February 23.

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People attend a professional soccer match in Kobe, Japan, on February 23. To help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the soccer club Vissel Kobe told fans not to sing, chant or wave flags in the season opener against Yokohama FC.

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A team of volunteers disinfects a pedestrian bridge in Bangkok, Thailand.

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A man rides his bike in Beijing on February 23.

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Hospital personnel in Codogno, Italy, carry new beds inside the hospital on February 21. The hospital is hosting some people who have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

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Doctors look at a CT scan of a lung at a hospital in Xiaogan, China, on February 20.

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A sales clerk wears a mask as she waits for customers at a hat shop in Beijing on February 18.Small companies that help drive China's economy are worried about how much damage the coronavirus outbreak will cause to business.

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Buses carrying American passengers arrive at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo on February 17. The passengers were leaving the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship to be repatriated to the United States.

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A medical worker rests at the isolation ward of the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan on February 16.

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Authorities watch as the Westerdam cruise ship approaches a port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on February 13. Despite having no confirmed cases of coronavirus on board, the Westerdam was refused port by four other Asian countries before being allowed to dock in Cambodia.

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A worker has his temperature checked on a shuttered commercial street in Beijing on February 12.

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Beds are made in the Wuhan Sports Center, which has been converted into a temporary hospital.

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A child rides a scooter past a police officer wearing protective gear outside the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on February 11. More than 100 people evacuated the housing block after four residents in two different apartments tested positive for the coronavirus.

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Relatives of quarantined passengers wave at the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it leaves a port in Yokohama, Japan, to dump wastewater and generate potable water. Dozens of people on the ship were infected with coronavirus.

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The Deneway branch of the County Oak Medical Centre is closed amid coronavirus fears in Brighton, England, on February 11. Several locations in and around Brighton were quarantined after a man linked to several coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom came into contact with health-care workers and members of the public.

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A police officer, left, wears protective gear as he guards a cordon at the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on February 11.

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A worker wears a protective suit as he waits to screen people entering an office building in Beijing on February 10. China's workforce is slowly coming back to work after the coronavirus outbreak forced many parts of the country to extend the Lunar New Year holiday by more than a week.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has his temperature checked during an appearance in Beijing on February 10.

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Photojournalists wearing face masks take photos of a bus carrying passengers after they disembarked from the World Dream cruise ship in Hong Kong on February 9. More than 5,300 people were quarantined on two cruise ships off Hong Kong and Japan.

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People participating in a Lunar New Year Parade in New York City hold signs reading, "Wuhan stay strong!" on February 9.

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A shopper walks past empty shelves at a grocery store in Hong Kong on February 9. China's Ministry of Commerce encouraged supermarkets and grocery stores to resume operations as the country's voluntary or mandatory quarantines began to take an economic toll.

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A worker wearing a protective suit uses a machine to disinfect a business establishment in Shanghai, China, on February 9.

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Workers in protective gear walk near the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama on February 7.

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People in Hong Kong attend a vigil February 7 for whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.Li, 34, died in Wuhan after contracting the virus while treating a patient.

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A woman grieves while paying tribute to Li at Li's hospital in Wuhan on February 7.

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The Anthem of the Seas cruise ship is seen docked at the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, New Jersey, on February 7. Passengers were to be screened for coronavirus as a precaution, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN.

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A light installation is displayed by striking members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance and other activists at the Hospital Authority building in Hong Kong on February 7.

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Passengers are seen on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked at the Yokohama Port on February 7.

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Flight attendants wearing face masks make their way through Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok on February 7.

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Workers check sterile medical gloves at a latex-product manufacturer in Nanjing, China, on February 6.

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A woman wears a protective mask as she shops in a Beijing market on February 6.

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This aerial photo shows the Leishenshan Hospital that is being built in Wuhan to handle coronavirus patients.

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A passenger shows a note from the World Dream cruise ship docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on February 5.

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A mask is seen on a statue in Beijing on February 5.

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An ambulance stops at a traffic light in front of the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macao. The virus turned China's gambling mecca into a ghost town.

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A dog in Beijing wears a makeshift mask constructed from a paper cup.

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Striking hospital workers in Hong Kong demand the closure of the border with mainland China on February 4.

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The Diamond Princess cruise ship sits anchored in quarantine off the port of Yokohama on February 4. It arrived a day earlier with passengers feeling ill.

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A medical worker wearing protective gear waits to take the temperature of people entering Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on February 4.

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Medical workers in protective suits help transfer patients to a newly completed field hospital in Wuhan.

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People wearing protective overalls talk outside a Wuhan hotel housing people in isolation on February 3.

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A man stands in front of TV screens broadcasting a speech by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on February 3. Lam said the city would shut almost all border-control points to the mainland.

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A colleague sprays disinfectant on a doctor in Wuhan on February 3.

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Commuters in Tokyo walk past an electric board displaying dismal stock prices on February 3, the first business day after the Chinese New Year. Asia's markets recorded their worst day in years as investors finally got a chance to react to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

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Medical workers move a coronavirus patient into an isolation ward at the Second People's Hospital in Fuyang, China, on February 1.

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Children wear plastic bottles as makeshift masks while waiting to check in to a flight at the Beijing Capital Airport on January 30.

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Passengers in Hong Kong wear protective masks as they wait to board a train at Lo Wu Station, near the mainland border, on January 30.

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A volunteer wearing protective clothing disinfects a street in Qingdao, China, on January 29.

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Nanning residents line up to buy face masks from a medical appliance store on January 29.

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Lyu Jun, left, a member of a medical team leaving for Wuhan, says goodbye to a loved one in Urumqi, China, on January 28.

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A charter flight from Wuhan arrives at an airport in Anchorage, Alaska, on January 28. The US government chartered the plane to bring home US citizens and diplomats from the American consulate in Wuhan.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in wears a mask to inspect the National Medical Center in Seoul on January 28.

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, center, attends a news conference in Hong Kong on January 28. Lam said China will stop individual travelers to Hong Kong while closing some border checkpoints and restricting flights and train services from the mainland.

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Workers at an airport in Novosibirsk, Russia, check the temperatures of passengers who arrived from Beijing on January 28.

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US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a news conference about the American public-health response.

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Two residents walk in an empty park in Wuhan on January 27. The city remained on lockdown for a fourth day.

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A person wears a protective mask, goggles and coat as he stands in a nearly empty street in Beijing on January 26.

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Medical staff members bring a patient to the Wuhan Red Cross hospital on January 25.

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People wear protective masks as they walk under Lunar New Year decorations in Beijing on January 25.

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Construction workers in Wuhan begin to work on a special hospital to deal with the outbreak on January 24.

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Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters on January 24 about a patient in Chicago who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The patient was the second in the United States to be diagnosed with the illness.

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A couple kisses goodbye as they travel for the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing on January 24.

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Workers manufacture protective face masks at a factory in China's Hubei Province on January 23.

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Shoppers wear masks in a Wuhan market on January 23.

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Passengers are checked by a thermography device at an airport in Osaka, Japan, on January 23.

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People wear masks while shopping for vegetables in Wuhan on January 23.

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A militia member checks the body temperature of a driver in Wuhan on January 23.

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Passengers wear masks as they arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, on January 23.

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A customer holds boxes of particulate respirators at a pharmacy in Hong Kong on January 23.

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Passengers wear masks at the high-speed train station in Hong Kong on January 23.

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A woman rides an electric bicycle in Wuhan on January 22.

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People in Guangzhou, China, wear protective masks on January 22.

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People go through a checkpoint in Guangzhou on January 22.

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