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Taiwan raises coronavirus alert level as residents stockpile toilet paper and food

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan limited gatherings and ordered entertainment businesses closed as it raised its coronavirus alert in the capital to the second highest level to contain a new surge in locally transmitted covid-19 cases.

Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said in a briefing on Saturday that Taipei and the surrounding city, New Taipei City, accounting for a total population of about 6.5 million people, was now placed under coronavirus alert level three, one stage short of a full lockdown.

Authorities on Saturday reported 180 new local infections, the largest single-day increase of community transmission since the pandemic began.

The measures, which will be in place for two weeks, limit indoor gatherings to five people and outdoor ones to 10 people. Residents, urged to avoid unnecessary travel and gatherings, must wear face masks at all times when outside of their homes.

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Night clubs, bars, karaoke bars and other entertainment venues were ordered to shut while restaurants were required to register customers and implement social distancing. Businesses were encouraged to offer remote working and flexible hours. Schools would be closed to the public but classes were not suspended.

"The epidemic is gaining intensity," Chen said, speaking to reporters. "Only by doing this can infections be dealt with and controlled." The health minister said a full lockdown would be imposed only if an average of more than 100 new daily cases was reported for 14 consecutive days.

The mayor of Kaohsiung, Chen Chi-mai, said the southern port city on Saturday also implemented new rules requiring face masks and social distancing. Several universities in Taipei said they would move to online classes, while officials said night markets in the city of Taichung in central Taiwan would be closed.

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The latest outbreak is a setback for Taiwan, which has for the last year been held up as a model for dealing with the outbreak. It has never had to impose lockdowns, with residents carrying on as usual in sharp contrast with much of the rest of the world. As of Saturday, Taiwan had reported 1,475 cases among its population of about 24 million people, with 12 deaths.

The surge in local cases also underlines the challenges facing countries where early successes over the outbreak led to slow vaccination roll outs as residents felt less urgency to get inoculated.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on April 26 announced that the United States would share AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine with countries. (The Washington Post)

On Friday, amid increased local infections, more than 32,000 people were vaccinated, the highest daily figure since late March when Taiwan began offering AstraZeneca shots. Amid concerns over possible blood clots associated with the vaccine, an estimated less than 1% of the population had been vaccinated. On Thursday, Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen said the first batch of locally made vaccines would be available at the end of July.

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On Saturday, residents rushed to stores in Taipei, clearing shelves of toilet paper, instant noodles, canned food and rice — prompting authorities to limit purchases of daily necessities to only two of each product.

In a post on Facebook, Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs urged residents not to stockpile and to avoid crowding grocery stores. It said that authorities were working with manufacturers to make sure supplies were replenished.

Assuring residents that new stocks of toilet paper would soon be available, the ministry reminded the public that many had loaded up on such products last year at the beginning of the outbreak.

The ministry's said: "Remember that last year many of you bought quite a lot [of toilet paper]. Check your home first to see if you have any."

Alicia Chen and Wu Pei Lin contributed to this report from Taipei.

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