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A city of 11 million people near China’s capital has been locked down and its residents tested en masse for the coronavirus amid the worst outbreak in about two months in the country, which has largely contained COVID-19 within its own borders.

Authorities in Shijiazhuang banned people and vehicles from leaving the city, located in the province of Hebei that surrounds Beijing, CCTV reported late Thursday. Nucleic acid testing is being rolled out city-wide, and five hospitals have been emptied to treat COVID-19 patients, the state broadcaster said, citing Deputy Mayor Meng Xianghong.

The number of confirmed cases in Hebei rose by 33 on Friday, with 31 of those infections in Shijiazhuang, according to China Daily. That brings the total size of the cluster to 123 confirmed cases, excluding asymptomatic ones, which have also been detected in the mass testing. It’s unclear how the virus took hold in this part of northern China, which had gone about two months without a case before this flare-up emerged.

The first infection was reported Jan. 2 in a woman, 61, who visited relatives and attended wedding celebrations before being diagnosed. While small compared with outbreaks in the U.S., India and parts of Europe, it is China’s largest since Xinjiang in the west reported a slew of cases in November, many detected as authorities tested millions of people across the region. Some 39 asymptomatic cases — which Chinese authorities generally report separately — were found Friday in Hebei, on top of the more than 100 already detected, China Daily said.

A medical worker collects a swab from a resident Wednesday during mass testing after a recent coronavirus outbreak in Shijiazhuang, China. | CHINA DAILY / VIA REUTERS
A medical worker collects a swab from a resident Wednesday during mass testing after a recent coronavirus outbreak in Shijiazhuang, China. | CHINA DAILY / VIA REUTERS

China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said the virus strain in the latest outbreak is highly similar to those seen in Europe. Shijiazhuang is about three hours drive south of Beijing, which has also seen a flare-up in cases in recent weeks. The capital’s cluster appears to be under control, with zero new infections reported for Wednesday and Thursday.

Since quashing the outbreak in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the virus, in the first half of 2020, China has deployed a consistent playbook to mitigate COVID-19. All travelers entering the country are required to undertake quarantine of at least 14 days and mass testing is rolled out when even a handful of cases are detected. The country’s surveillance network is also used to track infections and people’s contacts.

After deploying the world’s first lockdown in Wuhan, China has used it as a strategy in a number of other towns and parts of cities. In June, some areas and apartment buildings in Beijing were locked down to contain an outbreak that originated in a food market in the city’s west.

China’s overall case tally stands at 96,432 since the start of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins data, versus 21.5 million in the U.S., and 10.4 million in India.

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