Harbin residents told to stay home for the holiday amid COVID-19 outbreak

South China Morning Post

Posted at Sep 29 2021 10:27 AM

Medical workers wearing protective suits take swabs from primary school students at a nucleic acid testing site, following new cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Fuzhou, Fujian province, China September 15, 2021. cnsphoto/via Reuters
Medical workers wearing protective suits take swabs from primary school students at a nucleic acid testing site, following new cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Fuzhou, Fujian province, China September 15, 2021. cnsphoto/via Reuters

Residents of Harbin in northeast China have been told to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel during the week-long National Day holiday, as the city grapples with a Covid-19 outbreak.

Multiple clusters have emerged in the provincial capital of Heilongjiang in the past week and the source of the latest infections remains unclear, Harbin officials said on Tuesday.

"As of now, efforts to control the epidemic have been challenging, and the chain of infection is complex because the close contacts of the infected have also been in contact with many others," Ke Yunnan, deputy director of Harbin's health commission, told reporters.

Eleven of the 13 locally acquired cases China reported on Tuesday were found in Harbin, while the other two were in southeastern Fujian province, where an outbreak that began almost three weeks ago is largely under control. Another three asymptomatic local cases were reported in Tianjin and the provinces of Hunan and Yunnan, while 18 cases were imported.

It comes as China is counting down to one of its biggest holiday weeks that begins on Friday, when hundreds of millions are expected to travel within the country. A total of 637 million trips were made by domestic tourists during the holiday last year, when the country had yet to launch its mass immunization program.

"Anyone who needs to leave Harbin must carry a negative test result for the coronavirus from at most 48 hours in advance and they must protect themselves," said Wang Yan, assistant to the director of the Harbin disease control centre.

Several universities have shortened the holiday in a bid to reduce the chance of students and staff being exposed to the virus. Tsinghua University cut the break to just three days, as did Fuzhou University and Xiamen University. Students at Chongqing University are meanwhile required to seek permission if they want to leave the campus during the holiday.

Travel restrictions have frustrated those who were looking forward to family reunions.

Fan Yulin, an 18-year-old student in Jingzhou, Hubei, said her mother - who lives in Zhejiang - had not been home for two years because of the pandemic.

"Finally Zhejiang province said it would relax its policy and she could come home, but I cannot go and see her because my school didn't approve my leave," Fan wrote on Weibo.

In Beijing, another student, 20-year-old Debbie Dai from Hengshan county in Hunan, simply posted this appeal on the social media network: "Please help ... I want to go back home for the National Day holiday, but my school has very strict epidemic control measures."

The first cases in the Harbin outbreak emerged on September 21 and multiple infections in the city's Bayan county - where most of the cases reported on Tuesday were found - have been identified as the highly transmissible Delta variant, the Harbin government said on Friday.

A third round of mass testing began in Harbin on Sunday night, while a fifth round of screening has begun in hotspot Bayan.

Measures like mandatory mass testing, isolating high-risk areas from the rest of the community and travel restrictions are part of China's "zero-tolerance" approach to tackling the pandemic.

Ma Xiaowei, director of the National Health Commission, told officials in Heilongjiang on Friday that every effort must be made to ensure the outbreak was under control before the holiday.

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