TAIPEI, Taiwan -- China on Wednesday reported a major drop in COVID-19 infections in the northern city of Xi’an, which has been under a tight lockdown for the past two weeks that has sharply disrupted the lives of its 13 million residents.
The National Health Commission announced just 35 new cases in Xi’an, home to the famed Terracotta Warriors statues along with major industries, down from 95 the day before.
Health officials said they have basically achieved the goal of halting community transmission because the new cases were among people already quarantined.
The decline has continued since daily new cases topped 100, which had prompted officials to retain and in some cases tighten restrictions on people leaving their homes.
Xi’an has reported nearly 1,800 cases but no deaths in its latest surge. That’s a small number compared to outbreaks in other countries, a sign that China’s “zero tolerance” strategy of quarantining every case, mass testing and trying to block new infections from abroad has helped it contain major outbreaks.
The lockdowns, however, are far more stringent than anything seen in the West, and have exacted a tremendous toll on the economy and disrupted the lives of millions of people.
News of people in Xi'an seeking urgent medical care who have been turned away at hospitals for not having current COVID-19 test results have spread online.
They included a pregnant woman who felt pains in her stomach on New Year's Day but was not allowed into a hospital, according to a post by the woman's niece that was shared widely on social media.
The woman waited outside the hospital on a pink plastic stool until she started bleeding. In a video taken by her husband which was circulated widely, a pool of blood was visible by her feet.
She was finally let into the hospital after medical workers saw the blood, but the fetus was already dead, the post said.
The AP was not able to independently verify the video. The woman's niece did not respond to messages left on her social media accounts.
Authorities told Phoenix News that they are investigating the case.
Another city, Yuzhou in Henan province, was also placed under lockdown in recent days after the discovery of three asymptomatic cases. As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, its total had risen to nine cases with symptoms and 23 without.
Only emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads, classes have been suspended and businesses catering to the public have closed for all but essential needs in the city of 1.17 million.
Several other cities in the province have ordered mass testing, shut public venues and restricted or suspended intercity travel, despite only small numbers of cases being detected.
With the Beijing Olympics beginning Feb. 4, China is doubling down on measures to prevent any new outbreak that could affect the proceedings.
People are being told to travel in and out of Beijing only if they absolutely need to and hotels have largely stopped taking new reservations. Athletes, officials and journalists are entering an “anti-pandemic” bubble as soon as they arrive and will remain within it until the Feb. 4-20 Winter Games are over.
No fans from outside China will be permitted and most spectators are expected to come from schools, government offices and the military rather than the general public.
Underscoring the importance of the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Olympic sites around the capital on Tuesday, including the main media center.
“Staging major international sporting events such as the Winter Olympics will be an opportunity to enhance the influence of Chinese culture, the reach of news reporting and the nation’s soft power," Xi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Outbreak concerns added to controversies that have dogged the Olympics over China's human rights record, with the U.S. and close allies announcing a diplomatic boycott. Xi is seeking to be appointed to a third five-year term as leader this year and is eager to avoid any development that could tarnish his reputation.
China has vaccinated nearly 85% of its population, according to Our World in Data. The shots have helped reduce the severity of disease, although Chinese vaccines are considered less effective than those used elsewhere.
Some residents of Xi'an have been complaining of food shortages, prompting officials to defend their measures and pledge to ensure adequate supplies. Some residents are receiving free food packages, while others are still scrambling to find where they can purchase groceries online.
Officials haven’t given a specific date for the lifting of the lockdown.
At least two district Communist Party officials in Xi'an have been sacked for failing to control the outbreak, and a third, the head of the city's big data management bureau, Liu Jun, has been suspended, Xinhua reported Wednesday.
That came after the city's health code system that monitors movements and vaccinations crashed on Dec. 20 due to high traffic as case numbers were rising, Xinhua said.
China has reported a total of 102,932 cases nationwide, with its death toll remaining steady at 4,636.
This story has been corrected to show the population of Yuzhou is 1.17 million, not 1.7 million.