By Muyu Xu and David Stanway

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese province at the center of the coronavirus outbreak has almost doubled its medical waste handling capacity after media images of bags of garbage piling up uncovered in hospital yards raised public concerns over secondary infections.

Adding to the pressure on authorities Hubei province, in central China, on Thursday reported a spike in new cases. Provincial health officials said 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest daily rise in fatalities so far, with another 14,840 new infections after a change in diagnostic methods.

The outbreak is putting China’s relatively unsophisticated waste treatment system to a massive test. An inadequate waste handling capacity in some regions, together with hefty disposal fees, has helped create an illegal medical waste disposal industry.

Data issued by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) on Thursday showed that Hubei, where the virus emerged in December, had a medical waste handling capacity of 317.5 tonnes per day by Feb. 11, up from 180 tonnes per day before the virus outbreak.

“China will take further measures to improve medical waste handling capacity in Hubei… and meanwhile closely monitor the situation in other regions, in order to prevent environmental risks and support the war against the coronavirus,” the MEE said.

Hubei has been collecting 187 tonnes of medical waste each day, with 125 tonnes related to the coronavirus.

Emergency disposal facilities with a capacity of 55.8 tonnes per day can be put into operation at any time, the MEE said, as the number of number of patients getting treated increases and more medical workers are sent to the province.

At least six listed medical waste handling companies have seen their share prices rally after the coronavirus outbreak, boosted by market expectations that regulations will be tightened, as they were after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

(Reporting by Muyu Xu in Beijing, Luoyan Liu and David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Alex Richardson)