BEIJING - For the first time since the Beijing government held daily news briefings on the capital city’s coronavirus outbreak at a wholesale food market, officials wore masks to meet reporters on Wednesday morning (June 17).
It was the first press conference after the authorities announced it was elevating the city’s emergency response to the second highest level, and the masks were the clearest signal that Beijing is back on the Covid-19 warpath.
The anticipated announcement came as another 31 new cases were recorded on Tuesday (June 16), taking the total to 137 since the authorities reported its first case after nearly two months last Thursday (June 11).
There have been no deaths, but one person is in critical condition.
The flare-up in the capital city has also spread to at least four other provinces - Sichuan, Hebei, Liaoning and Zhejiang - with eight Hebei infections linked to the Xinfadi market outbreak.
Provinces have begun screening people from Beijing, while health authorities have barred those considered medium- and high-risk from leaving the city.
These are people who are in districts with positive cases. Beijing has classified at least one community as high-risk and subjected its residents to quarantine, and 32 others medium-risk.
Cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou have started requiring travellers from Beijing to serve a 14-day quarantine. In north-east Heilongjiang province, which had fought a recent outbreak from imported cases, those coming from Beijing face 21 days of quarantine on top of taking four nucleic acid tests.
Travellers coming into Beijing also have to be tested and quarantined.
More than 1,000 flights were cancelled on Wednesday as the city goes into what state media described as a “soft lockdown”.
Schools have been cancelled, and some bars and restaurants have either shut or have reduced operating hours. Those that continue to operate will have to impose social distancing rules.
The number of infections could persist at this current level for some time, said Beijing’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control deputy director Pang Xinghuo at the press conference on Wednesday.
“This outbreak is still on the rise, and the risk of it spreading is high, making it hard to control,” she said.
The country’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention chief reportedly said on Wednesday that the Xinfadi market outbreak could have started a month earlier than thought.
“There could have been many asymptomatic or mild cases during this time, leading to a lot of virus in the environment. This is what we deduce, but we need further investigation,” Dr Gao Fu told a seminar in Shanghai, according to Chinese media outlet Caixin.
The authorities have already tested 356,000 people since Saturday (June 13) and continue to test medical workers, residents in communities with positive cases, teachers and students who have returned to schools previously.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, health officials put to rest talk that salmon was the virus host, saying there was no evidence to support this claim, and that the latest outbreak is likely caused by human transmission or contaminated items at the market.
Fears that salmon could be the culprit after traces of the virus were found on a chopping board at the market for imported salmon triggered supermarkets and restaurants to pull it off their shelves and menus.