Chile reports more than 7,000 virus deaths under new counting method

Capital city Santiago now has the fourth-largest number of confirmed cases of any city in the world; pictured are health staff transferring a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 at San Jose Hospital in Santiago amid the novel coronavirus pandemic

Chile nearly doubled its reported coronavirus death toll Saturday to more than 7,000 under a new tallying method that includes probable fatalities from COVID-19.

The toll thus increased by 3,069, Rafael Araos of the heath ministry said as he explained the new government counting methodology.

The larger number underscored the fact that Chile, despite taking early measures against the spread of the deadly virus, has become a regional hotspot.

Capital city Santiago now has the fourth-largest number of confirmed cases of any city in the world, following only New York, Moscow and Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to a running tally from Johns Hopkins University.

Reports that the government was announcing one virus tally in Chile while providing a larger number to the World Health Organization prompted the resignation of health minister Jaime Manalich.

Araos' announcement was meant to end weeks of controversy and confusion over the true death toll.

As of Saturday the death toll from confirmed coronavirus cases in the South American country was 4,075, or 7,144 when suspected cases are included.

Going forward, the government will release a daily tally of confirmed cases and then a weekly total on Friday that includes suspected cases, said Araos.

"The daily record will not be altered," Araos added, "because we want to maintain the trajectory and trends so people can have a sense of reality."

The new health minister, Enrique Paris, insisted that the government never meant to deceive people. "No data has ever been hidden," he said.

Infections have risen steadily in Chile even though it began taking emergency measures in February -- including widespread testing and the closure of borders and schools -- that made it one of the first Latin American countries to do so.

But Chile at first resisted imposing a mandatory quarantine.

Santiago and its seven million people were not placed under a full lockdown until just over a month ago, followed recently by the cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar.

A lack of economic assistance for those hit hardest by the virus and by an economic slowdown meant many poorer Chileans felt compelled to continue working.

Only this week, in a desperate attempt to slow the advance of contagion, did the government impose penalties of up to five years in prison for those defying lockdown rules.

Capital city Santiago now has the fourth-largest number of confirmed cases of any city in the world; pictured are health staff transferring a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 at San Jose Hospital in Santiago amid the novel coronavirus pandemic