China’s National Health Commission reported 166 new locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. Over 20 million people across northern China are in at-home lockdown due to outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants. Xi’an has been in lockdown since December 2021. Two cities in Henan, Yuzhou and Anyang, are both in total lockdown. Tianjin, a city of 14 million under the central government’s control, is in partial lockdown. Small case clusters in Shenzhen and Dalian have prompted mass testing but no city-wide lockdowns as of yet. The Associated Press reported on the situation in Tianjin, which appears to be the epicenter of an Omicron outbreak:
The northern Chinese city of Tianjin ordered a second round of COVID-19 testing of all 14 million residents Wednesday following the discovery of 97 cases of the omicron variant during initial screenings that began Sunday.
[…] Xinhua said authorities have carried out almost 12 million tests so far, with 7.8 million samples returned. Infections were first reported on Saturday in the city that is only about an hour from Beijing, which is to host the Winter Olympics from Feb. 4.
[…] Authorities also released news of an inspection to Henan last week by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who called for stepped-up measures to prevent the spread of both the delta and omicron variants. COVID-19 has spread to three cities in the province, including Yuzhou, Anyang and the provincial capital Zhengzhou, prompting travel bans and various levels of lockdown. [Source]
Omicron poses a unique challenge to China’s “zero COVID” policy because current vaccines reportedly have a limited ability to stop transmission of the variant (although early data indicate that vaccines are tremendously effective at preventing hospitalization and serious illness.) As a Tianjin disease control center official said in an interview with China’s state-run television station: “Whether it is in terms of virus origin tracing or epidemiological investigations, the Omicron variant has brought along unprecedentedly massive challenges and difficulties.” At CNN, Nectar Gan wrote about Tianjin’s efforts to stop Omicron, even as it evades vaccines:
Tianjin officials said at a news conference Tuesday that all bus services to Beijing had been suspended. Train tickets from Tianjin to Beijing have been closed for purchase online since Sunday evening.
On Wednesday, 425 flights were canceled at Tianjin Binhai International Airport, accounting for 95% of all scheduled flights, according to flight tracking app VariFlight.
[…] In Tianjin, epidemiological investigations on 80 people infected with Omicron found that 76 of them had been fully vaccinated with Chinese-made vaccines, including 20 who had received a booster shot. Three had received only one dose, while one individual, a child, had yet to be vaccinated. [Source]
The virus has already spread to Henan province—the first person with a diagnosed case was a university student recently returned from Tianjin. There have been moments of levity amid the gloom. A woman in Zhengzhou got stuck in her blind date’s apartment when his neighborhood went into lockdown during their date—he reportedly cooked for her every day they were locked in together. At the South China Morning Post, Dylan Duan reported on Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan’s trip to Henan province, during which she called for tighter measures to block transmission:
“It is necessary to further improve the efficiency of nucleic acid testing and investigations, adopt strict social control measures, block transmission routes as soon as possible, and strictly prevent the spread of the epidemic,” Sun was quoted as saying.
[…] Anyang’s 5 million residents have been banned from leaving their homes except to get a Covid-19 test since the first Omicron case was diagnosed on Monday.
[…] Authorities in Changyuan, also in Henan, said that anyone returning to the city “without permission from relevant departments” would be put under centralised quarantine at their own expense and could be prosecuted. [Source]
The Chinese government continues to maintain that imported cold-chain food is a vector for infection and blames imported goods for a November batch of cases in that city. In Shenzhen, where health officials have discovered 13 cases, local CDC officials warned residents not to purchase items from “high-risk” countries: “I will suspend the purchase of cherries and overseas cosmetics,” responded one Weibo user.
A failure to tamp down on cases can land local officials in hot water. Already, 11 officials and 61 government agencies in Anyang have been punished for “irresponsibility” in virus prevention work. A regional manager of Henan’s largest private medical testing institute was arrested for “criminal offences related to causing the spread of COVID-19.” In Dalian, a city in northern China, three port workers were sentenced to between 39 and 57 months in prison for failing to wear masks and personal protective equipment properly while handling imported goods in 2020.
At The New York Times, Li Yuan reported on how the push for “zero COVID” incentivizes extreme measures and silence, with only low-level officials punished for excesses:
A few low-level Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city’s health commission apologized to the woman who suffered the miscarriage. The general manager of a hospital was suspended. Last Friday, the city announced that no medical facility could reject patients on the basis of Covid tests.
But that was about it. Even the state broadcaster, China Central Television, commented that some local officials were simply blaming their underlings. It seemed, the broadcaster wrote, only low-level cadres have been punished for these problems.
[…] An emergency room doctor in eastern Anhui Province was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow pandemic control protocols by treating a patient with a fever last year, according to CCTV.
[…] A few Chinese publications that had written excellent investigative articles out of Wuhan didn’t send reporters to Xi’an because they couldn’t secure passes to walk freely under lockdown, according to people familiar with the situation. [Source]
To further protect itself from the spread of coronavirus, China has again cut its ties to the outside world. Incoming flights were already at 2% of pre-pandemic numbers. Now Reuters has found that there are scarcely any direct flights between the U.S. and China scheduled for January. Maintaining “zero COVID” through the Winter Olympic Games, already the target of boycotts over alleged Chinese human rights violations, will now pose an even greater challenge to organizers. At The New York Times, Amy Qin and Keith Bradsher reported on the severe challenge that the Omicron variant poses to China’s Winter Olympic preparations :
People who are unvaccinated will have to spend their first 21 days in Beijing in solitary quarantine. Fully vaccinated participants will be required to remain in a tightly managed “closed-loop” bubble from the moment they arrive in Beijing to the time they leave. They also must present two negative tests before arrival, take tests daily and submit health reports to the authorities using a mobile app.
[…] At the Tokyo Games last summer, more than 400 infections were recorded in the bubble; China is going to great lengths to limit the risk of an outbreak. Anyone in the bubble who tests positive must stay in a high-security government hospital or quarantine facility until two lab tests — also known as P.C.R. tests — at least 24 hours apart find no more trace of the virus, which can take weeks.
Officials also acknowledged concerns among residents that infections could occur within the bubble and then spread outside. On Sunday, Beijing traffic authorities urged residents to stay away from any collisions involving vehicles from the closed-loop bubble, saying that a special unit of ambulances would respond to such accidents.
[…] “If they can pull this off without causing any major outbreaks, it would be another gold medal that China would be happy to claim,” [Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University, said.] [Source]