Liu Zhiming, director of the Wuchang Hospital at the epicenter of a deadly coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, has died from COVID-19, state media reported Tuesday, highlighting the risk that the respiratory virus poses to health professionals.

Liu, whose age is variously being reported as 50 or 51, was one of more than 1,700 medical workers confirmed to be infected with the virus, according to China Daily. The state news outlet adds that the number dates from last Tuesday — meaning even more doctors, nurses and other medical staff may currently be infected.

Mainland China currently has more than 70,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the World Health Organization. And while the country has also endured the majority of deaths associated with the outbreak, health experts in China say there are signs that the pace at which the virus is spreading may be slowing down.

NPR's Emily Feng reports for our Newscast unit from Beijing:

"Today's numbers from China's national health commission show that the rate at which new cases reported outside Hubei province, where the epidemic has been concentrated, has dropped for two weeks. China's top state epidemiologist said earlier this week that he expected the outbreak to peak sometime in April. "However, distrust in official state statistics is still high. Hubei in part has the largest share of virus cases in China because it is the only province that discloses so called clinical cases — symptomatic patients who haven't tested positive for the virus. Other provinces are mandated to collect such data but have not disclosed these types of cases publicly."

The largest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside of China remains the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is quarantined at a terminal in Yokohama, Japan. On Tuesday, Japan's health ministry said tests confirmed 88 more cases — including 65 people who were identified as asymptomatic pathogen carriers. The diagnoses bring the total number of cases from the ship to 542 out of 2,404 people who were tested, Japanese officials say.

The Diamond Princess had some 3,700 people aboard when it docked in the port south of Tokyo earlier this month. But hundreds of people have now disembarked, either to receive care at local hospitals or, in the case of 328 American passengers, to fly back to the U.S. on special evacuation flights.

"We walked into the airplane hangar, and there were military people clapping and cheering for us," passenger Gay Courter told NPR, describing the scene as she and her husband, Philip, arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. "And that's when I broke down in tears. It was this overwhelming relief."

After the U.S. passengers were taken off the cruise ship, 14 of them were revealed to have tested positive for the coronavirus. U.S. officials say the results emerged after the patients were taken off the ship — and that because of the risk they could pose to the rest of the evacuees, the 14 were placed in a special section at the rear of one of the chartered jets.

The evacuees were flown to Lackland in Texas and Travis Air Force Base in California — the two designated quarantine spots for Diamond Princess passengers who return to the U.S. But the 13 infected evacuees were then flown to Omaha, Neb., to receive care at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

"Those who have tested positive for this novel coronavirus, are only showing mild symptoms of the disease," Nebraska Medicine said in a statement.

The facility includes a 20-bed national quarantine unit, where 12 of the evacuees are now being monitored. But another evacuee was deemed to need special care and was placed in a biocontainment unit.

Sixty-one U.S. citizens remain on the Diamond Princess, which is slated to begin emerging from its blanket quarantine on Wednesday. While many passengers will be allowed to leave the ship if they test negative for the coronavirus, others will have to undergo a longer quarantine if they've been in close contact with anyone who has the COVID-19 disease.

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