China must aim to curb Covid-19 before school term, health minister says

China must strive to contain its current wave of coronavirus infections by the end of August, its health minister told the state-run Xinhua news agency, as students prepare to return to schools and universities in September.

“Back-to-school season will start in September, and tertiary institutions and secondary and primary schools will start as scheduled,” National Health Commission director Ma Xiaowei said on Monday.

“We need to strive to get the pandemic under control by the end of August to let society return to normalcy as soon as possible.”

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Ma said that the spread of the infections across China was largely under control.

“In the 48 cities where there was an outbreak, as of [Saturday], 36 cities had not reported a case in more than six days,” he said. “Besides places such as Yangzhou, other places only had sporadic cases.

“As control measures become more stringent and the movement of people more strictly regulated, the risk of having a nationwide outbreak is relatively low.”

Yangzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, has been one of the hotspots of the outbreak. The wave of cases began on July 20 in Nanjing, Jiangsu’s capital, and spread to 48 cities in 18 provinces.

On Tuesday, 42 new symptomatic cases and 17 asymptomatic cases were reported. Of the symptomatic cases, six were identified locally and 36 were imported, with those infected locally – three in Jingmen, in Hubei province, and three in Yangzhou – being admitted to hospital for treatment.

All of the 17 asymptomatic cases were imported. People not showing symptoms are not counted towards the health commission’s case tally.

In the interview with Xinhua, Ma reiterated the need to increase China’s vaccine coverage to reduce the chance of the virus mutating. A total of 1.86 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered as of Sunday, according to the health commission, with more than 770 million people having had the full course of two doses.

Sixty million doses had been administered to 12-to-17-year-olds by last week, according to the epidemic control task force of the State Council, China’s cabinet, as local governments ramped up their vaccination drives before school resumes.

Zhengzhou, the Henan provincial capital and one of the hotspots, announced on Tuesday that children in the age group were to be fully vaccinated by September 15, joining other areas including Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan and Hainan that aimed to inoculate most of that age range in the next month.

Although two Chinese-made jabs have been approved for emergency use on children aged three to 11, the epidemic task force has yet to announce vaccination plans for that age group.

Some education bureaus have also announced measures aimed at ensuring that schools resume on time on September 1.

The Beijing Municipal Education Commission has banned pupils and school staff living in medium and high-risk areas from entering school grounds until their homes have been reclassified as low-risk and they produce a negative test. Students from low-risk areas outside Beijing must also stay in the capital for 14 days before being allowed on school grounds, while those from medium and high-risk places are barred from the city altogether.

The authorities in Jiangsu will not allow students at universities and colleges back on campus until September 15, while Fujian province will require schools to keep records of the travel and contact history of every teacher and student for the 14 days preceding reopening.

Last September, China staggered the start of the autumn term and universities were placed in a semi-lockdown, with students and staff forbidden from leaving campus unless absolutely necessary.

In addition to the urgency imposed by the approaching return of students, political pressure has been mounting to end the current wave of infections.

Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan has made three trips to outbreak hotspots in Jiangsu and Henan provinces during the wave, Xinhua reported. After her latest five-day research trip to Yangzhou, Sun urged local officials to improve testing and ensure residents under lockdowns were supplied with necessities.

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