SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China has put millions of people in lockdown in response to new outbreaks of COVID-19 in the north and northeast, with Hebei province reporting the first new coronavirus death on the mainland since May last year.
HOW DID THESE NEW OUTBREAKS OCCUR?
Two major outbreaks now centre on Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, and the province of Heilongjiang in northeast China.
Though the first case in the Hebei cluster was identified on Jan. 3, medical experts said it may actually have begun as early as November and spread through the province over the subsequent months.
There is no indication that it was related to any recent imported cases, though officials said on Wednesday that the initial case might have been a traveller from overseas.
The outbreak in the northeast is said to have originated in the coastal city of Dalian, where a series of local transmissions at the start of the year were traced back to infected cargoes from Russia.
The strain circulating in the region has been found to resemble the one that hit Russia last year.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT FROM CHINA’S PREVIOUS OUTBREAKS?
Officials have expressed concern that the outbreak in Hebei province has been largely in rural areas, where medical infrastructure is weaker and control measures somewhat harder to enforce.
Authorities are also trying to reduce the risk that it could spread deeper into the countryside as migrant workers return home for Chinese new year.
Though the number of infections remains relatively low, especially as a proportion of the population, Feng Zijian, deputy director of the China Center for Disease Control, warned that the Hebei outbreak had been spreading faster than previous ones.
Medical experts are also worried that the incubation period for the new strain is longer than previous outbreaks, with infections detected even after the recommended 14 days of isolation.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF A WIDESPREAD NEW WAVE OF INFECTIONS?
Though the number of new daily cases is at its highest in 10 months, China has acted quickly to try to contain the threat and stop it from spreading further, with more people in lockdown now than at the height of the crisis last year.
It has sealed off entire cities throughout Hebei province, paying particular attention to the roads connecting Hebei to its neighbour, the Chinese capital Beijing. It is also tracking people who have travelled out of the province since December.
The province of Heilongjiang is also encouraging people to stay home over the Lunar New Year holiday, but there will be no “one size fits all” travel ban. The official China Daily said in an editorial on Friday that “it has to be a voluntary choice on the part of workers.”
Feng of the CDC told reporters on Wednesday that China had now gained a good understanding of COVID-19 and that it was unlikely that there would be a large-scale rebound in cases.
(Reporting by David Stanway. Editing by Gerry Doyle)