VCG / VCG via Getty Images
Eleven million people are under lockdown in Hebei Province after a new cluster of coronavirus infections.
Since January 2, Hebei has reported more than 600 new positive cases, of which 544 originate from the capital Shijiazhuang. To identify all potential patients, health officials have conducted a round of mass tests of all city residents, and another is being conducted this week.
The province also postponed its annual legislative meeting due to the flare-up. Liaoning Province, which has had a small number of new virus cases this month, also postponed its meeting.
Hebei provincial authorities have doubled travel restrictions and quarantine measures in hopes of containing the virus before the lunar new year next month. Anyone leaving Hebei Province must show a negative COVID test performed no more than three days in advance.
Public health officials blame lax rules for movement in the countryside and frequent visits among friends and family for the Hebei eruption. On Monday, nearly 20,000 residents from twelve rural villages in the Gaocheng district of Shijiazhuang were sent to government quarantine.
The Hebei flare-up is the most serious outbreak China has seen in more than five months. Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a prominent doctor who heads the Department of Infectious Diseases at a hospital in Shanghai, told Chinese media that the outbreak is likely to continue for another month before it is brought under control.
The Hebei cluster’s first reported case was a man who lived in Shijiazhuang’s Gaocheng district. Contact tracking revealed that he attended a wedding day before being diagnosed on January 2nd. As the number of cases increased, Gaocheng announced a series of lockdown measures from the closure of schools to the closure of train stations and taxi services. Ticket sales of trains from Shijiazhuang to Beijing were suspended last week.
Provincial CDC officials have not yet named the source of the outbreak, though they say genetic sequencing suggests the current strain came from those who were prevalent in Europe. Most early cases in Shijiazhuang were found in villages near an international airport. The Hebei CDC says it is working to determine if the source was an asymptomatic carrier or contaminated cargo.
As of this week, three major cities in Hebei – Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang – are under blockade, meaning residents will always have to stay inside their housing complexes.
The eruption has alarmed China’s leadership. Hebei borders directly on the capital of Beijing on all sides, and a large number of its residents commute to nearby cities, including the port city of Tianjin for work. Hebei commuters must now provide negative COVID test results as well as proof of employment in Beijing to enter the capital.
Amy Cheng contributed research in Beijing.