Mainland China has seen its biggest daily increase in Covid-19 cases in more than five months, as new infections surged in Hebei province neighbouring Beijing.
Hebei on Monday reported 82 new locally transmitted cases for the previous day – the highest daily tally since the latest outbreak began on January 2. The northern province also recorded 49 asymptomatic cases, which are not included in China’s official tally.
A total of 265 local cases were being treated in hospitals, with 203 asymptomatic carriers under medical observation in the province as of Sunday, health authorities said.
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The worsening situation prompted the province’s legislature, the Hebei People’s Congress, to postpone its annual meeting that was due to be held on January 25. A new date will be announced later, according to official newspaper Hebei Daily.
Top Communist Party leaders and government officials, business leaders, academics and economists gather annually for both national and provincial people’s congress sessions to review and discuss policies and plans.
In Shijiazhuang, the epicentre of the new outbreak, officials said a second round of mass testing for all 11 million residents would begin on Tuesday. Testing of “key groups” of people in the city and neighbouring Xingtai was completed on Monday, they said.
Residents of both cities have been under lockdown since Wednesday.
Chinese health authorities have been battling sporadic outbreaks of the coronavirus this winter, with locally transmitted cases also reported in Beijing and several northeastern cities.
China reported a total of 103 new cases nationwide as of Sunday – the highest daily jump since the end of July. That includes the 82 local infections in Hebei, two in Liaoning province in the northeast, one in Beijing, and 18 imported cases.
“A steady trickle of new Covid cases has surfaced in the country’s northern provinces since October which has revealed loopholes in the official monitoring system,” Ernan Cui, an analyst with Gavekal Dragonomics, wrote in a research note on Monday.
“The Hebei outbreak in particular was primarily the result of blind spots in the province’s rural areas, where limited facilities have hindered Covid testing,” she said.
The outbreak in Hebei has put nearby Beijing on high alert. Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan visited Hebei last week, stressing the importance of transport restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading to other provinces and cities and safeguard Beijing, according to state news agency Xinhua.
“About 85.5 per cent of the infections [in Hebei] are in the countryside, and there are community and multigenerational transmissions,” Sun was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
“The prevention and control situation is complicated and strict. We must block the transmission as soon as possible and ensure Beijing’s public health security.”
It is still unclear how the latest outbreak started. A cluster of cases first emerged in villages near the Shijiazhuang airport, which is used to handle quarantine for international travellers bound for Beijing.
Health authorities said many of the Hebei patients had attended weddings, funerals and religious activities in several of Shijiazhuang’s villages since December, and some went to local clinics when they had symptoms rather than public hospitals because they were up to 50km (31 miles) away. The authorities said some of those local clinics had not recognised the symptoms as those of Covid-19.
Three officials in the city’s Gaocheng district, a high-risk area, have received warnings for failing to prevent further transmissions of the virus after a villager was found to have travelled freely to a hospital after testing positive last week.
Meanwhile, the Beijing municipal government has advised people living in Hebei, those living near the border with Hebei and those in the north of the city to work from home.
“If you do need to work in Beijing, please take your proof of residency and employment details along with a negative test result and apply for entry into Beijing,” government spokesman Xu Hejian said at a press conference on Monday.
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