Beijing locks down office building weeks before Olympics over single Omicron deal

The instant lockdown meant the building in the west of the city was cordoned off without prior warning, with everyone inside unable to leave and subjected to mandatory Covid tests. The decision to close the office came after an employee tested positive for Omicron on Saturday – the first recorded case of the highly transmissible variant in the city.

Over the past week, officials in Beijing have been on high alert as an outbreak of Omicron spread through Tianjin, a major port city just 30 minutes away by high-speed train. The cluster had already spread to two other cities hundreds of kilometers away.

According to detailed surveillance data collected by officials, the Beijing woman infected with Omicron had not come into contact with a confirmed case and had not left the capital in the past 14 days, raising concerns that the variant is already spreading in the community.

Unlike most countries around the world, China is pursuing a zero Covid strategy which relies on strict restrictions including mass testing, lockdowns and a long quarantine for international arrivals.

The single case in Beijing was identified at the worst possible time for the city as it prepares to host thousands of athletes for the Olympics, including from countries where Omicron is raging.

The risk of the variant spreading among Beijing’s local population outside its so-called Olympic bubble – intended to separate participants from the general public – comes as authorities warned of the ‘double pressure of domestic and imported cases’ .

After the woman’s case was confirmed, authorities sprang into action, imposing uncompromising instant lockdowns – trapping people in places such as office buildings – and extensive contact tracing and testing in high-risk areas. risk.

The residential compound where the confirmed case lives is just a 15-minute drive from the Olympic Park. The entire community has since been cordoned off while people get tested and authorities take environmental swabs. CNN staff who walked past the complex over the weekend saw large barriers in place to prevent anyone from entering or leaving.

Residents indoors have a right to fresh air, unlike stricter lockdowns in other parts of the country that confine people to their apartments – but they cannot leave community boundaries. Garbage begins to accumulate inside the complex, with only specially designated disposal teams allowed to handle it. Many nearby businesses are closed.

The woman’s workplace has also been locked down, with large tents set up outside to carry out and process Covid tests for everyone inside until the building is declared safe to reopen.

In another sign of the zealous official response, the story of the woman’s trip was published in state media, with extensive details of all the places she went within a two-week period. The long list includes metro stations, public restrooms, a supermarket, a luxury shopping center and a Dior boutique, a famous Peking duck restaurant, a cinema, a hair salon, a stand-up and even a park of ski.

More than 16,000 people linked to those locations have been tested with all negative results so far, authorities said Monday — and the city has yet to report any more cases. At a press conference, authorities raised the possibility that the woman contracted the virus after handling international mail.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly blamed imported goods for causing local outbreaks. However, the risk of surface transmission of Covid-19 is low compared to airborne transmission, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus dies “quickly” on porous surfaces but can persist longer on hard indoor surfaces, the CDC said last year.

After Beijing’s single case was announced, many schools in affected districts shifted students to online learning this week, and the city closed a number of scenic spots and temples. From January 22, all arrivals to the capital must undergo Covid tests both before and after arrival.

And despite the imminent arrival of thousands of Winter Olympians for the start of the Games on February 4, Beijing has decided to suspend dozens of international flights. Since Wednesday, all flights from the United States to China have either been canceled or may be suspended.

Athletes and staff mainly take special flights reserved for those with Olympic qualifications as part of the “closed loop” bubble, which covers all stadiums, competition venues, accommodation and catering, and has its own transport system.
Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, said the situation was still difficult to assess because authorities do not know where the woman was infected. “It is very possible that new cases will appear if the cause is not clear,” he said, according to a public tabloid. World times.

Although any additional infections may trigger more restrictions in the coming days, there is no need to overreact to a single case, which would not impact the Olympics, Wang added.

The public in Beijing appeared to share their sentiments, with crowds heading out for winter festivities this weekend, in stark contrast to localized lockdowns in some districts. On Sunday, many families flocked to a popular lake to skate on its frozen waters.

In addition to Beijing, a growing list of cities across China are also struggling to settle Covid epidemics and the Omicron threat. The variant was first detected in the community of Tianjin on January 8 and has since been found in seven other cities, including Beijing.

Many cities are now imposing restrictions such as closing public spaces and banning dine-in services at restaurants, as well as suspending air travel to the capital.

Chinese social media posts and videos show several targeted instant lockdowns in Shanghai over the past week, trapping anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. At one mall, shoppers were stuck for two days, with officials testing everyone inside and ordering a deep clean before reopening.

Video posted to social media showed a woman outside the mall, crying and reaching out to a small toddler who was watching behind her glass doors.

The measures may seem extreme, but they remain widely popular with much of the Chinese public, the vast majority of whom can enjoy life as normal.

And with the stakes so high, the authorities are taking no chances, knowing that all eyes are on Beijing as the Games approach.

CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.

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