A total of 304 positive cases have been registered in Hebei since January 2 – most of them in Shijiazhuang, according to official figures. The city is only 289.6 kilometers southwest of Beijing – about three hours by car or an hour on the high-speed railway.
At a press conference on Thursday, municipal authorities announced a ban on outbound travel for all residents and vehicles of Shijiazhuang, except in emergencies.
Gathering is prohibited within the city, all schools have been suspended, and residential communities and villages have also been closed.
The restrictions are among the strictest imposed in China, as the country largely contained the spread of the coronavirus in March. They are reminiscent of the draconian lock during the initial outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first discovered in December 201
The outbreak in Shijiazhuang comes just weeks before the lunar New Year’s holiday, China’s most important annual festival, which usually sees millions of people traveling home to reunite with their families.
Last year, the Chinese government closed Wuhan two days before the Lunar New Year, but millions of people had already left the city, potentially carrying the virus with them to their hometowns across the country.
This year, fearing that lunar New Year’s trips could speed up the spread of the virus again, a growing number of local governments are advising residents not to travel home for the holiday, with government and state-owned company employees ordered to stay unless is specially approved.
In Shejiazhuang, authorities announced last week that the city was entering a “military regime” to fight the spread of the virus. Soon, a coronavirus test device was launched across the city for all of its 11 million residents.
On Thursday night, two medical teams – each with about 100 members – carrying test kits and other equipment were sent from the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang to Shijiazhuang to support the effort.
In addition, a hospital in the city has been vacated and designated to treat patients with Covid-19, with three more hospitals ready, Mann said.
Rapid and drastic measures such as mass testing, extensive contact tracking and strict blockades have determined China’s response to sporadic local outbreaks.
Last October, the eastern port city of Qingdao tested more than 10 million people in just four days in a dozen cases transmitted locally.
In late October, Kashgar Prefecture in the far western region of Xinjiang conducted mass tests on nearly 5 million people and imposed blocking measures following a report of an asymptomatic case of coronavirus.
Potential weak connection
But this time, some public health experts in China said the re-emergence of the virus in Shijiazhuang was discovered too late, with rural areas being a weak link in preventing and controlling epidemics.
The first confirmed case was discovered on January 2, a 61-year-old woman from a village on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang. In the following days, most of the new cases were found in villages in the same area.
Lu Hongzhou, co-director of the Shanghai Clinical Center for Public Health at Fudan University, told the state-run Global Times that the Shijiazhuang outbreak shows that villages are a vulnerable link.
As the virus spread silently, villagers continued to attend rallies. Local health authorities have found that many infections are linked to funerals, weddings and other social gatherings, the report said.
“Apart from wedding banquets, some villagers also held religious activities at home every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, or at least twice a week, with dozens of people, mostly the elderly,” a local official at the Shijiazhuang epicenter was quoted as saying.
The CNN office in Beijing attributes the reporting.