Beijing is facing bigger tests when the first Omicron case was discovered weeks before the Olympics

The building in the western part of the city has been sealed, where everyone inside is subject to mandatory mass testing by Covid, since an employee tested positive for Omicron on Saturday – the city’s first recorded case of the highly transferable variant.

In the past week, Beijing officials had been on high alert when an Omicron eruption spread in Tianjin, a major port city just 30 minutes away by high-speed train. The cluster had already spread to two other cities hundreds of miles away.

According to detailed surveillance data collected by officials, the Beijing woman infected with Omicron had not been in contact with any confirmed cases and had not left the capital in the last 14 days, raising fears that the variant may already be spreading in the community.

Unlike most of the world, China pursues a zero-Covid strategy that relies on strict restrictions, including mass testing, shutdowns, and long-term quarantine for international arrivals.

The individual case in Beijing has been identified at the worst possible time for the city as it prepares to welcome thousands of athletes to the Olympics – including from countries where Omicron is raging.

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

After the woman’s case was confirmed, authorities set in motion, introduced uncompromising zippers – caught people in places like office blocks – and extensive contact tracing and testing in high-risk areas.

The residential area where the confirmed case resides is just a 15-minute drive from Olympic Park. The whole community has since been cordoned off while people are being tested and the authorities are conducting environmental tests. CNN employees who drove past the complex over the weekend saw large barriers in place to prevent anyone from coming or going.

The residents inside get fresh air, unlike stricter barriers in other parts of the country that restrict people to their apartments – but they can not leave the boundaries of society. Waste has started to pile up inside the complex and only specially designated disposal teams are allowed to handle it. Many nearby businesses are closed.

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

In another sign of the zealous official reaction was the woman’s travel story published in state mediawith extensive details of wherever she went within a period of two weeks. The long list includes subway stations, public bathrooms, a supermarket, a luxury mall and Dior store, a famous Peking and restaurant, a cinema, a hair salon, a stand-up comedy venue and even a ski park.
About 13,000 people attached to these sites have been tested so far, according to the state-run tabloid Global Times.

As of Monday morning, Beijing had not reported any further cases. At a press conference, authorities raised the possibility that the woman could have contracted the virus after handling international mail.

Chinese officials have repeatedly accused imported goods of causing local outbreaks. However, the risk of surface transfer 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 last longer on hard indoor surfaces, the CDC said last year.
A shopping mall in Beijing is closed on January 16 following news that the city has discovered its first Omicron case.

After news of the individual Beijing case surfaced, many schools in affected districts moved students to online learning this week, and the city has closed a number of scenic sites and temples. From 22 January, all arrivals to the capital must undergo a Covid test both before and after arrival.

And despite the impending arrival of thousands of Winter Olympics for the start of the Games on February 4, Beijing has canceled dozens of international flights. As of Wednesday, all flights from the United States to China have either been canceled or are likely to be suspended.

Athletes and staff mostly take special flights limited to people with Olympic credentials as part of the “closed loop” bubble, which covers all stadiums, competition venues, accommodation and catering and has its own transportation system.
Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, said the situation was still difficult to measure as authorities did not know where the woman was infected. “It is very possible that new cases will emerge if the cause is unclear,” he said Global Times.

Although any further infections could trigger more restrictions in the coming days, there is no reason to overreact to a single case, which would not affect the Olympics, Wang added.

The public in Beijing seemed to share his feelings, with crowds showing up for winter festivities over the weekend in stark contrast to the local shutdowns in some districts. On Sunday, many families flocked to a popular lake to skate on its frozen waters.

In addition to Beijing, there is also a growing list of cities throughout China struggling to dampen Covid outbreak and the Omicron threat. The variant was first discovered 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 dining in restaurants, as well as suspending flights to the capital.

Posts and videos on Chinese social media show several targeted snap locks in Shanghai last week that caught the one who was so unlucky to be nearby. In a mall, shoppers were stuck for two days, with officials testing everyone inside and ordering a deep cleaning before reopening.

A video posted on social media showed a woman outside the mall, crying and reaching out to a small child staring back behind her glass doors.

The measures may seem extreme – but they remain widely popular among a large section of the Chinese public, the vast majority of whom are able to enjoy life as usual.

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

CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.


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