North China’s Hebei province reported 51 new locally transmitted Covid-19 infections and 69 asymptomatic cases on Wednesday, after 63 infections were reported a day earlier, local health authorities said on Thursday.
All but one of the new infections were recorded in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital. The remaining case was in the neighbouring city of Xingtai. In addition, two new cases from overseas were reported in Hebei on Wednesday.
With 92 confirmed infections and 149 asymptomatic cases as of Wednesday, the Hebei outbreak marks China’s biggest rise in Covid-19 infections in recent months.
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Authorities in Shijiazhuang have launched citywide mass testing for all of its 11 million residents. Gaocheng district, the city’s high-risk area, tested 50,000 of its residents on Sunday. On Tuesday, the local government tested another 60,000 residents nearby.
Gene sequencing results have shown that the coronavirus found in Xingtai is similar to a European strain, according to local authorities.
As of Wednesday, Shijiazhuang had tested more than 2 million people and found 11 confirmed cases through the campaign, Meng Xianghong, deputy mayor of Shijiazhuang, said. Xingtai plans to test all 7 million residents within three days.
Experts warned that the new clusters in Hebei province showed the difficulty of containing the virus in rural areas, especially ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in February.
“The number of confirmed cases is still increasing, which means that the virus has spread in the area for a while,” state broadcaster CCTV quoted Feng Zijian, deputy director of the National Health Commission, as saying on Tuesday.
A public health expert with Peking University, who declined to be named, also warned of the difficulties ahead.
“[The cases] will be difficult to control because of the relatively large base of people,” he said.
He added that local authorities should step up testing in rural areas. “At present, the nucleic acid tests cannot be done in many rural clinics,” he said.
“The local authorities should also guide the public to reduce gatherings in winter and spring.”
Lockdown measures are already in place in Shijiazhuang, with all train services suspended and flights cancelled.
Mi Zhiqi, head of the city’s transport bureau, said on Thursday that Shijiazhuang had suspended all major transport links outside the city to lower the risk of virus spreading.
Passengers were banned from leaving the city by train from Wednesday and all major provincial highways into and out of the city were closed.
A total of 119 inbound flights and 112 outbound flights were cancelled as of Thursday morning at Zhengding International Airport, which is close to the high-risk Gaocheng district.
Buses ceased operation in Gaocheng from Wednesday.
“No vehicles or residents can leave the city, and the people of Gaocheng must not leave their district,” deputy mayor Meng said.
Schools and kindergartens closed from Wednesday. Mass gathering and activities were banned while tourism sites and indoor venues were also closed, Meng added.
Three local officials had been punished for failing to prevent further transmissions of the novel coronavirus, the city’s top anti-corruption authorities said on Wednesday.
Feng Zhiqiang, deputy director of Gaocheng district, was given a discipline warning. Feng was held accountable after a villager was found to have left home to see a doctor after testing positive last Sunday.
“The epidemic in Hebei is still developing and the situation is serious,” Ma Xiaowei, director of the National Health Commission, told a meeting with Hebei officials on Wednesday, adding that strict controls must be enforced to control the movement of people in Shijiazhuang and Xingtai.
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