China Sees First Covid Death in 9 Months as Outbreak Swells

(Bloomberg) -- China reported its first death from the coronavirus in nine months, as a new flareup in the country spreads to more regions ahead of the Chinese New Year holidays.

The country recorded 124 new local infections Thursday, the highest since March. Among those, 81 were found in Hebei, a province encircling Beijing that is at the center of the latest cluster. The other 43 cases were detected in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province.

The fatality was a woman who had an underlying condition, according to Xinhua news agency, quoting Hebei’s health commission. China hasn’t had a death tied to Covid-19 since April, as the country successfully stamping out clusters after reining in the first wave of infections a year ago.

The latest outbreak, however, which has expanded across eight provinces, is emerging as one of China’s biggest challenges since the initial surge in the city of Wuhan. The virus has been found to “last longer, spread wider, transmit faster, with a higher percentage of elderly and rural patients,” health officials said in a briefing Wednesday.

Winter conditions have challenged many countries, including neighboring Japan and South Korea, who had previously contained the virus well, as cold temperatures cause people to stay indoors in unventilated places, fueling the pathogen’s spread.

China’s new outbreak, while small compared to those seen in other countries like the U.S. and U.K., is causing concern as it comes less than a month before New Year celebrations, in which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to meet with families. The country is advising its people to avoid unnecessary trips around the holiday.

Three cities are currently locked down in Hebei. Flights and trains have been suspended and private cars discouraged from leaving city limits at border checkpoints. The scene is reminiscent of the Wuhan lockdown enacted almost a year ago, which was the first broad signal to the world of the severity of Covid-19.

Hebei has initiated a second round of mass testing for certain cities after testing tens of millions of people and detecting more than 300 positive cases in the first round earlier this month.

Unlike the chaos of the Wuhan outbreak a year ago, local governments appear to acting quickly to help residents in lockdown with efforts to secure the food supply. Officials are urging the fast delivery of milk to processors and chickens to farms, while also controlling vegetable prices. Still, according to posts circulated on social media, food prices are soaring in local markets, causing anxiety.

Hebei’s proximity to Beijing is also testing the nerves of China’s capital. Beijing has escalated prevention and social-distancing measures that haven’t been seen for months.

Taxis and car-hailing apps are pushing for a mandatory scanning of health codes so contact tracing can be carried out more quickly if any infection is found. Stricter checks are being required at residential compounds, restaurants, and other public venues. Some schools have asked parents to keep their children at home until after the holiday.