Omicron has flared in a port city that borders Beijing and spread inland before Chinese officials detected it, seeding the highly contagious variant on the doorstop of the nation’s capital less than one month before the winter Olympics begin.
There have been 21 new locally confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city of Tianjin, after two omicron infections were found on Saturday, triggering closed schools, halted travel and mass testing over the weekend. The steps came too late for the nearby province of Henan, itself the epicenter of a delta outbreak, after a college student believed to be infected with omicron returned from Tianjin with the more mutated pathogen. Two cases now have been detected in Henan.
The arrival of omicron bodes ill for China, where increasingly strict measures to eliminate the virus have failed to stamp out the less-transmissible delta. Previously isolated outbreaks are bleeding into one another, preventing the world’s most populous country from reverting to the vaunted “COVID zero” status it maintained for much of the pandemic. The goal seems even less likely now with omicron, which has caused infections worldwide to surge to unprecedented levels within weeks.
The two omicron infections in Henan province appear related to the country’s first two cases that were found in Tianjin, the local health commission said on Monday based on contact tracing and genome sequencing. Nationwide, the National Health Commission reported at least 97 locally transmitted cases on Monday, including 60 in Henan and 21 in Tianjin.
Tianjin’s leaders pledged to serve as a moat to protect the Chinese capital from further spread, acting with the fastest speed and the lowest cost possible, according to a municipal meeting led by the city’s Communist Party Secretary. They told the 14 million residents not to leave the city unless it’s essential in a statement late Sunday.
Located just a a 30 minute train ride from Beijing, Tianjin is also adjacent to Hebei province that is hosting most of the snow sports during the Winter Olympics.
Mass testing began across Tianjin early Sunday, according to the state-backed Xinhua news agency, while sales of most train tickets to Beijing were halted. Some bus and subway lines into the city also stopped operating. People who need to leave Tianjin are required to provide a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 48 hours and a real-time green health code.
At least two districts in Tianjin have suspended classes, while schools in rest of the city have been asked to hold classes online.
Officials there also pledged to take care of the city’s residents, after similar crackdowns in Xian in the northwest led to food shortages and limited access to essential medical care.
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