BEIJING -- Political officials were fired and infection cases skyrocketed in China on Thursday, reminding a nation stuck at home and scientists watching worldwide just how little is known about the coronavirus outbreak that has infected at least 60,000 and killed more than 1,300 people.
Previous numbers had been reassuring, with daily confirmations of new infections dropping from several thousand to around a thousand. Officials in Beijing, increasingly worried about the economic toll of the outbreak, urged people to go back to work. State media ran editorials about resuming international flights to China.
But on Thursday the case numbers shot up. Chinese health authorities reported 15,152 new cases of COVID-19 -- the World Health Organization's new name for the viral disease -- overnight. Most of the increase came from Hubei province, the epidemic's epicenter, where infections jumped by 14,840, more than nine times the 1,638 new cases reported there a day earlier.
Then came the purge. Beijing announced that both Wuhan and Hubei's provincial Communist Party chiefs were fired and replaced with officials known for "stability maintenance" and closely allied with party chairman and President Xi Jinping. The sackings followed earlier dismissals including the Communist Party secretary and the director of Hubei's health commission.
The underreporting of the breadth of the virus, which began at a seafood market in Wuhan, has been blamed on officials who suppressed information on the outbreak to save face among their superiors.
Experts say the sudden increase in the number of confirmed infections, although alarming, is a step toward identifying and containing the illness.
The new figures don't indicate a rapid overnight spread of the virus in Hubei, but rather a change in the way patients are counted there, which may provide better access to treatment on the front lines. New cases of COVID-19 are being confirmed based on symptoms and a CT scan of the patient's lungs. Previously, confirmations were based on time-consuming lab tests, which created huge backlogs.
Many critically sick patients with symptoms but no confirmation of infection had complained of being turned away from hospitals. An unknown number have died without having had a diagnosis confirmed. Nearly 90% of the new cases reported in Hubei on Thursday were "clinically diagnosed" under the new rules.
The change reveals that China had been undercounting its COVID-19 cases. It is also a troubling reminder that there is no clarity yet on the extent or severity of the outbreak.
"The picture is evolving day by day ... it is a constantly moving target," said John Nicholls, a pathologist at the University of Hong Kong who worked on the SARS outbreak in 2003. "We really have got no idea about the true number of cases."