A total of 304 positive cases have been reported in Hebei as of January 2, most of them in Shijiazhuang, official figures show. The city is just 289.6 kilometers southwest of Beijing – about a three-hour drive or an hour by high-speed rail.
At a press conference on Thursday, city officials announced a travel ban on all Shijiazhuang residents and vehicles, except for emergencies.
Meetings are banned within the city, all schools have been suspended, and communities and villages are also closed.
The restrictions are among the strictest in China as the country largely contained the spread of the coronavirus in March. They are a reminder of the draconian lockdown during the first outbreak in downtown Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first discovered in December 2019.
The Shijiazhuang outbreak comes just weeks before the New Year holiday, the main annual festival in China that typically sees millions of people travel home to reunite with their families.
Last year, the Chinese government cordoned off Wuhan two days before the New Year celebrations, but millions of people had already left the city and the virus may have taken the virus to their hometowns across the country.
This year, more and more local governments have advised residents not to travel home for the holidays, fearing that New Year’s trips could accelerate the virus again. Officials and employees of state-owned companies must remain, unless specific permission is given.
In Shijiazhuang, authorities said last week that the city was entering a “war mode” to combat the spread of the virus. A city-wide coronavirus test drive was soon rolled out for all 11 million residents.
On Thursday evening, two medical teams of about 100 members each, carrying test kits and other equipment, were sent to Shijiazhuang from eastern Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces to support the effort.
In addition, a hospital in the city for treating Covid-19 patients has been vacated and evicted. Three more hospitals are ready, Meng said.
Rapid and drastic measures such as mass testing, extensive contact tracing and tight bans have defined China’s response to sporadic local outbreaks.
Last October, the eastern port city of Qingdao tested more than 10 million people in over a dozen locally transmitted cases in just four days.
In late October, Kashgar Prefecture, far west of Xinjiang, carried out mass tests on nearly 5 million people and imposed lockdown measures after a single asymptomatic coronavirus case was reported.
Possible weak link
This time around, however, some public health experts in China said the virus recurrence was detected too late in Shijiazhuang, with rural areas being a weak link in epidemic prevention and control.
The first confirmed case was discovered on January 2 – a 61-year-old villager on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang. In the days that followed, the majority of the new cases were discovered in villages in the same district.
Lu Hongzhou, co-director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center at Fudan University, told the state-run Global Times that the Shijiazhuang outbreak shows villages are a vulnerable link.
When the virus spread silently, villagers continued to attend gatherings. Local health officials have found that many infections are related to funerals, weddings and other social gatherings, the report said.
“Aside from wedding banquets, some villagers held religious activities at home every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, or at least twice a week, attended by dozens of people, mostly the elderly,” said a local official from the Shijiazhuang epicenter village, citing a saying.
CNN’s Beijing office is credited with reporting.