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A surge in COVID-19 spurs new lockdowns in China's cities

Residents queue to undergo nucleic acid tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Jilin in China's northeastern Jilin province on March 12, 2022. - China OUT (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Residents queue to undergo tests for the coronavirus in China's northeastern Jilin province on Saturday.

The entire Chinese province of Jilin is under lockdown as COVID-19 cases surge across the country.

Jilin's daily case counts topped 4,067 on Monday alone, leaving health officials scrambling to catch up to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

China is combating the highest level of COVID-19 cases ever, with more than 10,000 cases scattered across 27 provinces and municipalities since the start of this month.

China's tried and true method for keeping cases close to zero for more than two years has been to trace, test, and isolate all infections, their close contacts, and the close contacts of those contacts faster than the virus can spread.

In the latest surge, however, the highly transmissible omicron variant has moved more quickly than contact tracing allows.

The result has been a return to full lockdowns for Jilin's 24 million residents, who are now forbidden to leave as of Monday and are required to shelter at home. In Shanghai and Beijing, all schooling has been moved online indefinitely.

Langfang, in Beijing's northern Hebei province, as well as Shenzhen and Dongguan cities, in China's south, are also under lockdown as of Tuesday. Two other cities — Shanghai and Xi'an — have put in place some lockdown measures.

China has contained omicron outbreaks before, but none has grown as big as the current surge. The strain is already showing as cities are running out of isolation facilities to put tens of thousands of close contacts.

Nearby, Hong Kong serves as a warning of the cost of failure. The city is still logging more than 26,000 new cases a day and is suffering the world's highest COVID-19 fatality rate. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An entire province in China is under lockdown as the country combats the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases in two years. The country's pandemic approach has managed to contain outbreaks before. But reining back the omicron variant is proving the biggest challenge yet. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For more than two years, China's tried and true method for keeping cases close to zero has been trace, test and isolate all infections, their close contacts and the close contacts of those people faster than the virus can spread. But what happens when a variant moves more quickly than contact tracing? In the northern province of Jilin, daily case counts topped 3,000 on Monday alone, leaving health officials scrambling to catch up to omicron. Here's Jilin health commission official Zhang Yan this past weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHANG YAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, "our medical resources were insufficient, meaning our ability to isolate people quickly was limited. And our emergency response was not enough." The result has been a return to full lockdown of Jilin province, home to 24 million people. In Shanghai and Beijing, all schooling has been moved online indefinitely. China has contained omicron outbreaks before. But none has gotten as big as the current surge. And the strain is already showing because cities are running out of isolation facilities to put tens of thousands of close contacts. Here's Zhang again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHANG Y: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, "we misjudged the omicron variant. And the government's monitoring has not been good enough." Even before this surge, a minority of voices had been calling for a new approach - to vaccinate heavily and begin living with an endemic COVID. One of these voices is Zhang Wenhong, the well-known director of a Shanghai hospital.

ZHANG WENHONG: Almost before the vaccine launched, we know that we have to live with the virus.

FENG: This week, Zhang penned a long online essay saying China was not ready to open up just yet. But the recent outbreak showed China needed more sustainable long-term strategies. So far, health authorities say they will stick to zero COVID. The alternative, to live with COVID, would be disastrous in a country with a fragile hospital system. And they've done so well in the past at containing COVID that there's very little natural immunity. Nearby, Hong Kong is a warning of the cost of failure. The city is still logging more than 25,000 new cases a day and suffering the world's highest COVID rate of fatality.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.