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China’s spiraling Delta variant outbreak hits Wuhan, as country introduces mass travel restrictions

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>A medical worker takes samples during a mass Covid-19 test inside a residential compound in Wuhan on August 3.
Getty Images
Getty Images
A medical worker takes samples during a mass Covid-19 test inside a residential compound in Wuhan on August 3.

By Nectar Gan, CNN

China’s spiraling Delta variant outbreak has reached Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, prompting citywide coronavirus testing as authorities scramble to contain the city’s first reported local infections in more than a year.

China is grappling with its worst outbreak in months, with more than 300 cases detected in more than two dozen cities across the country. The country now has 144 medium- and high-risk areas, the most since the initial outbreak in early 2020, the National Health Commission said Wednesday.

The speed and scale of the spread has spurred mass domestic travel restrictions, with all inter-city coach, taxi and online car hailing services suspended in medium- and high-risk areas. Chinese immigration authorities have also vowed to “strictly restrict non-urgent, unnecessary cross-border travel,” including tightening the issuing of passports for Chinese citizens.

On Monday, seven infections were reported among migrant workers in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected in December 2019. As of Wednesday, a total of 20 local infections have been reported, including 8 asymptomatic cases, according to the Hubei provincial health commission.

The city of 11 million people was placed under the world’s first and arguably strictest coronavirus lockdown in January 2020, during the height of its devastating initial outbreak. The paralyzing 76-day lockdown came at a huge personal cost to residents, but eventually succeeded in taming the virus. Wuhan had not reported any locally transmitted cases since May last year.

Despite the initial mishandling, the Chinese government has heralded Wuhan as a success story in its fight against the pandemic. In August 2020, as much of the world grappled with Covid-19, Wuhan made international headlines when it held an electronic music festival in an open air water park, with thousands of people partying without any masks or social distancing measures in sight.

But now, the highly contagious Delta variant has put authorities on high alert.

On Tuesday, Wuhan launched a citywide coronavirus testing drive, with residents forming long lines at community testing sites late into the evening. The city has also suspended 17 bus lines and closed a number of subway stations.

Some fear the return of a stringent lockdown. Videos and photos shared on social media Monday show empty shelves and long lines at supermarkets, as residents rushed to stock up daily supplies.

“Seeing Wuhan people panic buying at supermarkets makes me feel sad. Only those who have experienced it understand how terrible it is, (we) dread a return to the days of staying at home and not knowing where the next meal is,” said a Wuhan resident on Chinese microblogging site Weibo.

During Wuhan’s initial lockdown, millions of residents were ordered to stay in their homes, relying on officials and volunteers for daily necessities — often at a higher price.

As of Wednesday, no citywide lockdown has been announced for Wuhan, although residential compounds linked to detected cases have been placed under targeted lockdowns.

Spiraling outbreak

The ongoing outbreak first started in Nanjing, Jiangsu province in eastern China, where nine airport cleaners were found to be infected on July 20 during a routine test. Chinese authorities have linked the cluster to a flight from Russia, which arrived at the Nanjing Lukou International Airport on July 10.

“It is believed that the cleaners did not strictly follow anti-epidemic guidelines after cleaning Flight CA910 and contracted the virus as a result. The infection further spread to other colleagues, who are also responsible for cleaning and transporting garbage on both international and domestic flights,” reported state news agency Xinhua.

Since then, the cluster has spread to at least 26 cities, including the tourist hot spot Zhangjiajie and the capital Beijing.

In just two weeks, China has reported more than 480 locally transmitted confirmed cases, according to a CNN tally of the National Health Commission’s daily reports.

Not all infections have so far been directly linked to the cluster in Nanjing. On Monday, 63 local infections, including 50 asymptomatic cases, were reported in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province which was ravaged by deadly floods last month. Most cases are linked to an outbreak at a hospital, where janitors, medical staff and patients are among those infected. The city launched citywide testing Sunday.

The fast spreading Delta variant has posed a major challenge to China’s hardline zero Covid strategy, which relies on mass testing, targeted lockdowns, extensive contact tracing and strict quarantine measures to quickly suppress local flare-ups.

China responded by doubling down on its containment approach, adopting stringent measures on a scale not seen in months. Several cities have been placed under effective lockdowns, ordering residents to stay in their homes and canceling flights and trains.

The country has also imposed massive nationwide travel restrictions. All provincial authorities have urged citizens not to travel to medium and high-risk areas or leave the provinces where they live unless it is strictly necessary.

The Chinese government is particularly concerned about the spread of the virus to Beijing, which is set to hold the Winter Olympics in February next year. The city has reported a handful of cases since last week — its first coronavirus resurgence in months.

Beijing authorities have banned people from medium- or high-risk areas from entering, suspending flights, trains and buses from Covid-hit places. Since Tuesday, 23 railway stations have halted ticket sales for train rides heading to the capital, Xinhua reported.

Chinese authorities are also tightening restrictions on cross-border travel. China is still largely closed off from the outside world, and those who are allowed to enter are subject to lengthy hotel quarantine.

At a press conference Wednesday, an official with the National Immigration Administration said authorities would stop issuing travel documents, such as passports, for Chinese citizens who want to leave China for “non-urgent, unnecessary” reasons. Individuals who need to travel overseas for study, work or business purposes would still be issued travel documents upon approval, he added.

Mahjong parlors

China reported 71 locally transmitted confirmed cases On Wednesday, with nearly half of them coming from Jiangsu province, according to the National Health Commission. The city of Yangzhou, neighboring Nanjing, has become the latest hotspot, reporting 32 local infections.

Authorities have blamed the outbreak in Yangzhou on a 70-year-old Nanjing resident, who traveled to Yangzhou on July 21 despite her residence in Nanjing had been placed under a lockdown, according to a statement from the Yangzhou police.

The elderly woman, who stayed in Yangzhou with her sister, did not inform local officials of her travel history as required, and repeatedly visited crowded places including restaurants, markets and mahjong parlors, the statement said.

The woman sought treatment at a hospital on July 27 after she started coughing and developed a fever, and tested positive for coronavirus a day later. She has been criminally detained by police and is under investigation for suspected obstruction of the prevention and control of infectious diseases, according to the statement.

Mahjong parlors, popular with older people, have played a central role in the spread of Covid in Yangzhou, according to authorities. On Wednesday, Jiangsu officials said at a press conference that 64% of Yangzhou’s 94 confirmed cases as of Tuesday were linked to Mahjong parlors, and 68% of confirmed cases are above 60 years old.

Both Yangzhou and Nanjing have conducted several rounds of citywide testing, and suspended all domestic flights, long-distance buses, taxis and online car hailing services from arriving and departing.

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