BEIJING: China reported nearly 3,400 COVID-19 cases on Sunday, double the number a day earlier, forcing virus hotspots to close as the country grapples with its most severe outbreak in two years.
A nationwide spike in cases has prompted authorities to close schools in Shanghai and lock down several northeastern cities, as nearly 19 provinces battle groups of Omicron and Delta variants.
The city of Jilin has been partially put on lockdown, with hundreds of neighborhoods sealed off, an official announced Sunday, while Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 people that borders North Korea, was placed on lockdown entirely.
China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has maintained a strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy enforced through rapid lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters emerged.
But the latest outbreak, fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a surge in asymptomatic cases, challenges that approach.
Zhang Yan, an official with the Jilin province health commission, admitted on Sunday that local authorities’ response to the virus has so far been poor.
“The emergency response mechanism in some areas is not strong enough, there is not enough understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant… and the judgment has been inaccurate,” he told a government news conference.
Jilin residents have completed six rounds of mass testing, local officials said. On Sunday, the city reported more than 500 cases of the Omicron variant.
The neighboring city of Changchun, an industrial base of nine million people, was put on lockdown on Friday.
The smaller cities of Siping and Dunhua, both in Jilin province, were locked down on Thursday and Friday, according to official announcements.
The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun health commission were fired from their jobs on Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the political imperative imposed on local authorities to crush virus clusters.
But weariness with the strict approach has shown itself in China, with officials increasingly urging softer and more targeted measures to contain the virus, while economists warn that the drastic measures are hurting the economy.
With cases rising since the end of February, the response in different parts of the country has generally been softer and more targeted compared to December, when the city of Xi’an and its 13 million people went into lockdown for two weeks.
In Shanghai, China’s largest city, authorities have increasingly moved to temporarily close individual schools, businesses, restaurants and shopping malls over fears of close contact rather than mass quarantines.
Long lines have been seen outside hospitals around the city as people rush to get a negative COVID test.
As cases rise, the country’s National Health Commission announced on Friday that it would introduce the use of rapid antigen tests.
The kits will now be available online or in pharmacies for clinics and ordinary citizens to buy for “self-testing”, the health commission said.
Although nucleic acid tests will remain the main testing method, the move suggests that China may be anticipating that official efforts will fail to contain the virus.
Last week, a leading Chinese scientist said the country should try to coexist with the virus, like other nations, where Omicron has spread like wildfire.
But the government has also made it clear that mass closures remain an option.
Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who frequently telegraphs high-level thinking on the response to the pandemic, on Saturday urged regions to quickly attack and eliminate outbreaks.