The outbreak focused on the Hebei cities of Shijiazhuang and Xingtai is one of China’s most serious in recent months and comes amid measures to curb the further spread during next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a massive scale.
The National Health Commission said Monday that another 82 people had tested positive in Hebei and were showing symptoms. Around the country, another 36 people had tested positive without displaying symptoms, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many of those were in Hebei.
The Hebei outbreak has raised concern because of its proximity to the nation’s capital. Both Shijiazhuang and Xingtai have ordered millions tested, suspended public transportation and restricted residents to their communities or villages for one week. Parts of the province are under lockdown and interprovincial travel has been largely cut off, with those entering Beijing to work having to show proof of employment and a clean bill of health.
Hebei has recorded 265 confirmed cases and at least 181 asymptomatic cases over the last eight days. China does not include those who test positive but do not show symptoms in its official case count.
Two other new cases were reported Monday in the northeastern province of Liaoning and one in Beijing, where more than 30 people have been sickened in an outbreak centered on the northeastern district of Shunyi. Housing compounds in the district were requiring proof of a recent negative coronavirus test from anyone wishing to enter.
China’s has now recorded 87,536 total cases with 4,634 deaths. Hospitals were treating 673 people for COVID-19 while 506 people were in isolation and under observation after testing positive without showing symptoms.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— The Japanese Health Ministry has found a coronavirus variant in people arriving from Brazil that’s different from the ones in Britain and South Africa. The variant was found in four people tested at the airport, the ministry said Sunday. Japan was working with other nations, the World Health Organization and other medical experts to analyze the variant. The previously identified variants from Britain and South Africa are more contagious, but the behavior of this variant and the illness it causes are not yet known. The Tokyo area has been under a state of emergency since Friday to try to stop the spread of the virus. Japan has had about 4,000 deaths related to COVID-19 so far, and more than 280,000 confirmed cases.
— South Korea’s president says the government will offer COVID-19 vaccinations to everyone free of charge in phased steps. President Moon Jae-in made the comments in his New Year’s address on Monday. He reaffirmed an earlier government announcement that the inoculation will start from February. South Korean officials have said they’ll have vaccines for 56 million people, an amount seemingly enough for the country’s 52 million people. After weeks of a viral resurgence, South Korea’s virus caseload has recently experienced a gradual slowdown amid tough distancing rules that include a ban on social gatherings of five or more people. Earlier Monday, South Korea reported 451 new virus cases, the first time its daily tally was below 500 in 41 days. The country’s total stands at 69,114 with 1,140 deaths.
— Sri Lanka partially reopened schools on Monday, after they had been closed for nearly three months due to the coronavirus. The move is seen as an attempt to return to normalcy from the months of lockdowns imposed to contain the virus. But the government decided not to reopen schools in the capital, Colombo, and suburbs because the majority of new cases have been reported from those areas. Schools in other parts of the island nation reopened under strict health guidelines such as wearing facemasks, bringing home-cooked food, washing hands regularly and maintaining social distancing. Sri Lanka closed schools in October amid a second wave of the coronavirus after two clusters emerged in Colombo and its suburbs.
— Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin says Malaysia’s healthcare system is at “breaking point” as he reintroduced movement curbs to curtail a sharp spike in coronavirus cases. From Wednesday, he said Kuala Lumpur, the government administrative capital Putrajaya and five other states will be placed under near lockdown for two weeks, similar to a nationwide lockdown in March last year. This time, however, he said the manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantation sectors will be allowed to operate with strict guidelines. Interstate travel will be banned, no dine-in allowed and movement will be limited within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius. Muhyiddin said conditional restrictions will apply to other lower-risk states. He said 476 new virus clusters have been identified since a fresh outbreak in September. He said daily coronavirus cases, which have consistently breached 2,000 in recent weeks, could jump to 8,000 by the end of May if nothing is done. He said Malaysia will obtain its first batch of Pfizer vaccine next month, and is working on securing supplies to cover 80% of the population. Two Cabinet ministers were among those diagnosed with the virus over the weekend. Malaysia’s virus cases have spiraled from just over 15,000 three months ago to 138,224, including 555 deaths.