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China grapples with new coronavirus cases ahead of Lunar New Year

People walk in a shopping street in Wuhan, China, on Monday. The city was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak a year ago. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — After months of loosened restrictions and almost no local outbreaks, China is battling a surge in coronavirus cases and implementing strict new rules ahead of its busiest holiday season, Lunar New Year in February.

That China, one of few countries to have contained the virus, continues to grapple with outbreaks highlights the difficulty others face in bringing the pandemic under control.

For the past seven days, China reported new locally transmitted cases in clusters scattered across the country from Beijing to Liaoning province in the north and Sichuan in the southwest. Health officials on Tuesday documented 15 new local infections in Beijing and Liaoning, about half of them in a suburb of the capital.

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In Hangzhou in the east, a security guard was confirmed to have the virus, while in Heihe, near China’s border with Russia, all flights were canceled after a student and his grandmother tested positive. As of Tuesday, 23 neighborhoods and districts were in what authorities described as “wartime” mode after the discovery of new cases.

China largely brought the outbreak under control by the middle of this year after authorities locked down cities, closed borders and enforced strict quarantine and testing requirements. While China has been able to reopen the economy and regain some sense of normalcy, new outbreaks have caused various parts of the country to go into periodic lockdowns.

China beat back covid-19 in 2020. Then it really flexed its muscles at home and abroad.

Data released by China’s public health authorities late Monday showed that the scale of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected last year, may have been 10 times the official figure.

A survey in April of some 34,000 people found that 4.4 percent of those tested in Wuhan had antibodies for fighting off the virus. That would suggest as many as 500,000 residents in Wuhan had the virus, compared with the official tally of 50,000. The data also indicates that the city first hit by the virus is far from achieving herd immunity.

“This means that there were many latent infections that had not been discovered during the Wuhan epidemic,” Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based expert on vaccines and immunology, told state media.

Authorities, on high alert ahead of the Lunar New Year — a holiday also known as the Spring Festival — issued new restrictions on movement and gatherings. Last year, the holiday period, during which citizens make an estimated 3 billion trips across the country, was interrupted by the outbreak.

This time, residents may still be restricted from celebrating. The northwestern city of Lanzhou called on families to visit relatives, a new year tradition, online rather than in person. Several cities restricted the size of gatherings to 10 people, while in Anhui province, any company gathering of more than 50 guests must be registered with the government.

In the northeastern port city of Dalian, where authorities have been scrambling to control an outbreak, government and state company workers must apply for permission to attend any events with guests from other Chinese provinces or other countries.

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And in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, elementary schools have been asked to hold their winter breaks earlier, while some colleges are extending their semesters and requiring students to be tested for the coronavirus before being allowed to return home.

Measures were strictest in Beijing, where officials have tested more than 1.2 million people in the suburb of Shunyi since last week after two new coronavirus cases were detected on Friday. The area was placed under “wartime” controls over the weekend.

Beijing residents have been encouraged to celebrate the holiday in the capital, while party officials have been ordered not to leave, unless given permission. Fairs, sports events and travel groups have been suspended.

While warning the public against travel during the holiday, authorities have tried to maintain confidence in the government’s virus response, promising increased availability of vaccines and pointing to imported cases as the main threat. Fuyang city in Anhui province advised residents against shopping online from overseas stores.

“Although the emergence of sporadic cases cannot be avoided, large-scale transmission is basically not possible. Yet, in some places prevention and control may increase,” Zhang Wenhong, director of the infectious-diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, told local media on Monday. “The more cases there are, the greater difficulty.”

Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.

China beat back covid-19 in 2020. Then it really flexed its muscles at home and abroad.

China sentences citizen journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for Wuhan lockdown reports

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