(BEIJING, China) — A cluster of COVID-19 cases in Beijing has prompted authorities to test millions and impose new measures two weeks ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics, even as the city of Xi’an in north-central China lifted on Monday a monthlong lockdown that had isolated its 13 million residents.
Officials in Beijing said they would conduct a second round of mass testing of the Fengtai district’s 2 million residents, where the majority of the capital’s 40 coronavirus cases since Jan. 15 have been found. This announcement came just days after Beijing authorities said that all people who have bought or received fever, cough, or other medications in the last 72 hours would need to undergo a COVID-19 testing.
These severe measures, even though they only cover a small number of instances, are evidence of the grave concern expressed by government officials during the build-up to the Olympics. They open in Beijing on February 4.
“The current epidemic prevention situation is still grim and complicated and all departments across the city must act proactively and swiftly,” Beijing city spokesperson Xu Hejian said.
“The overall situation is controllable,” he added.
The ruling Communist Party’s “zero tolerance” COVID-19 policy has brought with it drastic efforts to stamp out any signs of new outbreaks — including last month’s lockdowns of Xi’an and two other cities, and the partial suspension of train and plane routes to Beijing to isolate it from outbreak areas.
Overall, the number of reported new cases has been falling in China from more than 100 a day at the peak of the Xi’an outbreak to 18 on Sunday, six of which were in Beijing. However, the pandemic control efforts remain high ahead of Games. Every participant will be tested daily and isolated from the outside world.
Olympic athletes visiting China must have their vaccinations or be quarantined upon arrival.
Ben Cowling from Hong Kong University was a public health specialist and said COVID-19 infection could continue to leak out of the Olympic Bubble.
“I would estimate there is a good chance of at least one lockdown being implemented in Beijing in the coming month,” he said.
On top of the first round of mass testing in the capital’s Fengtai area, targeted testing was conducted Sunday at residential communities in six other districts, the Beijing Daily reported. It wasn’t fully clear who was being tested. In one area, an official told the paper that, in case a resident went to Fengtai/Fangshan (another affected district), then all occupants would need to be tested again.
People living in Beijing’s high-risk areas were advised by the government not to move. Several provinces nearby reported outbreaks linked to the epidemics in Beijing, Shandong and Hebei being among them.
Beijing officials stated that six Omicron-infected people were now under control. Fengtai’s outbreak is Delta-driven. Chinese health officials allege that it may be linked to import frozen food.
Pang Xinghuo (deputy director, Beijing Center for Disease Control) stated that the gene sequencing of virus sample from frozen foods was in line with the one in 28 people infected. Experts from abroad are skeptical about the possibility that COVID-19 could spread quickly through packaging.
The announcement of the end of the lockdown in Xi’an followed the restart of commercial flights from the city over the weekend. In the first days of the lockdown the main tourism hub and ex-imperial capital was unable to supply food to its citizens.
Access to Xi’an was suspended Dec. 22 following a Delta outbreak. The city is located approximately 1,000 km (600 mi) south of Beijing and infected with more than 2000 people.
Travel bans were also imposed by the government on several cities due to other outbreaks, such as the port at Tianjin which is located about one hour north of Beijing. China reported very few Omicron-related cases despite the strict regulations.
More than 3,000 participants have reached the Games, which will take place from January 4th through Sunday. This includes more than 300 athletes, team officials and organizers. Media and other participants make up the rest. Up to now, 78 people, including an official from a team or athlete, have been confirmed positive. China waived 21-day hotel quarantine to allow athletes and officials who are coming to the Olympics.
Monday was the announcement of the IOC regarding changes to COVID-19 policies for Games. This included a decrease in the time an infected person can be considered close contact (from 14 to 7 days).
Huizhong Wong, an Associated Press journalist, from Taipei (Taiwan), contributed.