By Nectar Gan, CNN
Chinese authorities are rushing to contain a growing Delta variant outbreak in southern Fujian province ahead of an upcoming major national holiday, as hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel across the country – creating a window for the highly variant. infectious spreads far and wide.
The outbreak, dubbed China’s “first school-centric outbreak” by state media, was initially detected at an elementary school in Putian city on Friday. It has since spread across the province, infecting more than 100 people in three cities.
The National Health Commission (NHC) on Monday reported 59 cases in Fujian, including 24 in Putian and 32 in Xiamen, a large coastal city popular with tourists. On Tuesday, the two cities launched Covid mass tests for all residents.
Putian has a population of around 3 million, while Xiamen has a population of 5 million. Both cities have ordered residents not to leave the city for non-essential travel. Those with legitimate reasons for leaving must produce a negative coronavirus test taken within the last 48 hours. Long-distance coaches from the two cities have also been suspended.
On Tuesday, Xiamen imposed targeted closures in residential neighborhoods affected by the epidemic, with residents banned from leaving their apartments or complexes. It has also closed libraries, museums, bars, cinemas and gymnasiums, banned large-scale gatherings and canceled events celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, a three-day party that begins on Sunday.
Similar restrictions were also placed on Putian. The city has reported a total of 85 infections, including 30 children under the age of 10, the city government said at a press conference on Tuesday.
In Xianyou, authorities have placed more than 3,000 direct and secondary contacts of infected cases in quarantine, including a large number of schoolchildren, some of whom have been separated from their parents, according to Wu Haiduan, head of the county government.
“It’s a difficult problem when outbreaks occur in children,” Wu said. “If the children can be quarantined independently, we quarantine them independently. If they need parents to accompany them by their side, we organize their parents to stay in a room next to them so that they can chat with each other. Of course, they can only chat in the next door.
As of Tuesday, no related cases were reported outside of Fujian, but local governments across China are on high alert. The NHC estimates that about 30,000 people from Putian, the epicenter of the latest outbreak, have left the province in the two weeks leading up to Friday.
A team of experts sent by the NHC to Fujian called the outbreak “serious and complicated,” but said it could hopefully be brought under control before National Day next month if containment measures were to be taken. implemented extensively, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The weeklong vacation, known as “Golden Week” and starting on October 1, is one of the busiest times for traveling in China, with hundreds of millions of people expected to race the highways, trains and planes.
Last year, a total of 637 million domestic trips were made during the national holiday, the first major holiday since China emerged from its first coronavirus outbreak. It generated 455 billion yuan in tourism revenue, a much anticipated boost to the country’s economic recovery.
On Chinese social networks, many users have wondered if they could travel during this year’s “Golden Week”. Many people’s summer travel plans have already been disrupted by an earlier Delta epidemic, which first appeared in eastern Jiangsu Province and swept across half the country before being contained in late August.
The latest outbreak in Fujian was first detected in students at a primary school in Xianyou. Since then, infections have been discovered in students at several preschools and primary schools.
In Putian, 8 kindergarten students and 28 primary school students were infected, according to the government.
Xiamen and Putian closed schools and kindergartens and ordered them to teach online.
Experts quoted by the state newspaper Global Times have called on the country to expand its Covid-19 vaccination program to cover children aged 3 to 12.
China rolled out the vaccination for adolescents aged 12 to 17 earlier this year. As of Aug. 13, more than 60 million doses have been administered in this age group, according to the NHC.
In Putian, the government urged schools to step up efforts to administer second doses of Covid vaccines to 12 to 14 year olds and to complete the vaccination of students aged 12 to 17 by Wednesday.
Chinese health authorities have approved two domestic vaccines – manufactured by Sinopharm and Sinovac, respectively – for emergency use in children aged 3 to 17.
The Fujian outbreak has highlighted the growing challenge facing China’s ambitious zero Covid strategy, raising questions about its long-term sustainability.
Experts advising the government have said a father who recently returned from Singapore was the likely source of the outbreak, despite having been under a long, draconian quarantine.
The man arrived in Xiamen, the provincial capital of Fujian, on August 4, where he underwent 14 days of compulsory quarantine in a hotel. He spent an additional 7 days in central quarantine in Xianyou, before returning home for an additional week of health surveillance, according to the Putien government.
He had tested negative for the virus nine times during a 21-day quarantine, before testing positive on Friday – 37 days after entering China, according to state media.
Chinese authorities have not disclosed when, where or how the man caught the virus, but an incubation period of more than 21 days is highly unusual.
Researchers from the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the Delta variant had an average incubation period of 4 days, compared to an average of 6 days for the original strain.
Some have asked on social media if the man contracted the virus after returning to Xianyou.
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CNN’s Beijing office and Zixu Wang contributed reporting.