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China covid cases elevated as virus chief urges more tests

Aug. 22, 2022 Updated Mon., Aug. 22, 2022 at 9:38 p.m.

Residents queue at a coronavirus testing facility in Beijing on May 23.  (Bloomberg News)
Residents queue at a coronavirus testing facility in Beijing on May 23. (Bloomberg News)
Washington Post

Washington Post

China is struggling to control its biggest outbreak since the one that triggered the disruptive Shanghai lockdown earlier this year as cases in vacation hotspots remain elevated.

The country reported 1,824 new COVID-19 cases for Sunday, the highest level in around three months. The southern island of Hainan – popular with Chinese for its beaches and resorts – reported 767 cases for Sunday, the most among all provinces, while outbreaks continue to flare in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The persistently elevated case tallies are testing Beijing’s Covid Zero policy as the government seeks to strike a balance between continuing to crack down on the virus and maintaining growth. Disruptions from potential lockdowns are a major uncertainty for the economy, which is also facing a property crisis, record-high youth unemployment and more recently, severe drought that’s led to power cuts at factories.

China’s Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who visited Hainan last week, said the fight against COVID in the province has reached a crucial stage and more testing needs to be done in areas seriously hit by the outbreak, Xinhua news agency reported. Cities and counties with no infections need to take preventative measures, according to Sun, who is also the nation’s health czar.

Her visit ended on a more optimistic note as she said that the tropical island’s outbreak has reached an inflection point, with new daily cases dropping and the reproduction number in Sanya city falling below one, indicating infections are spreading more slowly. Authorities in Hainan have also arranged for over 163,000 stranded tourists leave the island as of Sunday, according to the report.

China may gradually loosen its COVID control measures, epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said in an interview on Friday with online media outlet Jimu News. The country would implement so-called Class B controls, when appropriate, to reduce the impact on people’s daily lives, she said.

The country sorts infectious diseases into one of three classes. While COVID is categorized as Class B, along with H7N9 influenza and dengue, the National Health Commission ordered the virus response to be in line with measures used for Class A illnesses, paving the way for mass testing and isolation. Only cholera and the bubonic plague are Class A diseases.

Li is known for her work in guiding the response to the virus outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, though her prominence has since receded. Her comments represent a rare call to shift away from Covid Zero from a health expert inside China, with President Xi Jinping affirming his commitment to the approach.

China remains the last country globally still seeking to snuff out COVID transmission, a strategy successfully used by Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, among others, before the onset of vaccines. The ongoing adherence to Covid Zero is leaving the world’s second-largest economy increasingly isolated, as the rest of the world lives alongside COVID and moves on from the pandemic.

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