The world must prepare for a “protracted war” against Covid-19, a high-profile Chinese medical expert has warned, as he compared the effort to stop the disease spreading to catching rats in a china shop.
The warning came as China continues to battle sporadic outbreaks, mainly centred on the north and northeast of the country.
The national health commission reported 80 new Covid-19 infections on Sunday, including 65 new local cases – down from 107 cases the previous day. It also recorded 92 new asymptomatic infections, which China does not classify as confirmed cases.
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Zhang Wenhong, director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, wrote on the social media platform Weibo: “The coronavirus has steadily occupied the planet and become a resident virus on the earth. After a year spreading, the virus is constantly mutating.
“We have seen the virus spread faster, but we have not seen that its virulence has been greatly reduced. This shows that we have to prepare for a protracted war.”
Zhang, one of the country’s best-known experts, also discussed Shanghai’s efforts to contain the disease, saying: “We hope to catch the rats without breaking the porcelain, and hope that the pandemic prevention will not have a big impact on social life.”
He said that the city was always trying to stay ahead of the virus, and all recent cases had been tracked quickly, but cases would happen as long as China remained open to the world.
“It is a major challenge for the entire public health system to use the route of virus transmission to block the spread of the virus, and strive to control the virus in the disease hot spots, to avoid social shutdowns caused by the spread of the virus,” he warned.
“Before universal vaccination [comes in], we can only run with all our strength, prevent and control, so that our cities and rural areas can live without the threat of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, a leading Chinese medicine specialist helping to fight the outbreak in Hebei province, the centre of the latest outbreak, predicted the situation will be brought under control in less than a month.
Zhang Boli, president of the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said January and February would be the most critical months for the Covid-19 fight.
Zhang, who was honoured by President Xi Jinping along with some of the country’s leading scientists for their role in fighting the pandemic last year, said: “Based on the experience of Shijiazhuang [the capital of Hebei province], the spread should be under control before Lunar New Year. Widespread or concentrated outbreaks will not happen but occasional outbreaks might continue to take place,” he said.
“By the end of February or early March, we can start to feel relieved when the ‘Covid-19 haze’ is gone and spring flowers bloom,” said Zhang.
The country has already vaccinated more than 15 million people as it prepares for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February. The travel season is usually the world’s largest annual human migration as people travel home to see their families.
Around 1.7 billion trips are estimated to be made over the holiday period, according to the Ministry of Transport.
On Sunday Hebei’s health commission reported 19 new cases, 17 of them in Shijiazhuang, taking the total for its current outbreak to 836 known active infections.
Last week the city concluded a third round of mass testing of more than 10 million residents, which identified dozens of new cases, most centred in one district.
Tong Zhaohui, director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Medicine and part of the team sent to Hebei, told state broadcaster CCTV: “The outbreak in Shijiazhuang this time mainly took place in villages in rural areas. To control infectious diseases we need early detection, reporting, quarantine and treatment.
“If we do the same in rural villages, it will be easy to contain the virus. We should educate rural residents so that they will see a doctor in time.”
In the northernmost province of Heilongjiang, where 29 new infections and 51 cases of asymptomatic infection were reported on Sunday, authorities have encouraged residents not to travel for the festive season and offered financial aid to those in need.
The province has reported a total of 382 active infections and 509 cases of asymptomatic infection in the current outbreak.
Hegang city, for example, has raised 500,000 yuan (US$77,140) to support those who are not returning home for the festival, including 500 university students on subsistence allowance, according to the provincial government.
The city will also spend 1 million yuan on Lunar New Year shopping for 5,000 senior citizens and people with disabilities and illnesses to help them avoid overcrowded stores and 200,000 yuan to distribute disinfectant to 28,000 low-income households.
Suihua, the province’s worst-affected city, had quarantined more than 6,600 people as of Thursday and is preparing more facilities, according to Guo Jianmin, the director of the municipal health commission.
Guo told a press conference on Sunday that more than 130 quarantine centres have been set up and the authorities have inspected hotels, schools and training centres to see if they can be used if needed.
“We follow strict procedures while transferring residents directly to quarantine centres in isolation. Each vehicle is escorted by a police officer and a medical worker in full protective gear,” said Guo.
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