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New COVID-19 rules trigger rapid response

By WANG XIAOYU and DI FANG| China Daily| Updated: November 15, 2022 L M S

Authorities nationwide implement measures announced by central government

The authorities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, lost no time in implementing the latest COVID-19 policy modifications announced by the central government on Friday afternoon.

Less than four hours after the changes were unveiled, Guangzhou, which has seen a recent rise in local outbreaks of the disease, said it would implement the modifications and promptly reduce the quarantine period based on the new requirements.

By the following afternoon, more than 12,300 close contacts or inbound travelers who had been in centralized isolation facilities for five days and had tested negative, as well as some 16,500 secondary close contacts placed in quarantine, had been discharged.

The prompt action in the southern city, which saw daily new infections top 4,000 during the weekend, has impressed many netizens.

On Sina Weibo, two hashtags linked to the rapid action in Guangzhou had been viewed more than 250 million times by Sunday evening.

A Sina Weibo user with the handle Xuxuchanchan said: "The action taken by the city is very good and worth a thumbs-up. I hope other places follow suit soon."

The latest optimization of China's virus control policy — outlined in 20 measures ranging from new quarantine and contact tracing rules to prohibiting malpractices — has drawn widespread attention across society, with many pointing to the speed and depth of implementation in particular locations.

In Hubei province, Tan Xiaodong, a professor at Wuhan University's School of Public Health, said, "A feature of this round of adjustments is that detailed measures were revealed very quickly — only one day after a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on Thursday (that discussed the issue)."

He said many of the changes are clearly aimed at standardizing anti-virus approaches nationwide. "As new policies are conveyed across different levels of authority, we can foresee that local governments will enforce these measures very soon," Tan said during an online seminar.

Authorities at all levels have stressed that the latest adjustments do not constitute a relaxation of the resolve to control the virus.

On Sunday, new infections on the Chinese mainland rose to a fresh high in recent months, with 1,747 local confirmed infections and 14,325 local asymptomatic cases reported, according to the National Health Commission.

Lei Haichao, vice-minister of the commission, said at a news conference on Saturday, "Our constant upgrading of virus containment measures is not a relaxation of epidemic control work, but signals an emphasis on being more scientific and precise, so as to rein in outbreaks while minimizing their impact on economic and social development and daily lives."

Training sessions

Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, stressing that the adjustments are aimed at coping with the epidemic in a more scientific and precise manner, said on Friday evening that local authorities should fully enforce the measures based on local conditions, and strengthen guidance and training for the new policies.

Lei said the top health authority has arranged online training sessions for disease control workers at different levels to gain an accurate understanding of the changes and accelerate their implementation.

Health experts estimate that reducing the centralized quarantine period for inbound travelers and close contacts from seven days to five will free up 30 percent of government isolation facilities nationwide, and that no longer tracing secondary close contacts will not increase the risk of the virus spreading.

An employee at a design studio in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, surnamed Xu, who volunteered as an anti-virus worker in her neighborhood, said on Sunday the quarantine period for close contacts had been reduced, as required.

"I also really appreciate the requirement to no longer identify secondary close contacts because of the low risk of positive cases being reported among them. This change can save a considerable amount of time and resources," Xu said.

Zhang Zhoubin, spokesman for the local center for disease control and prevention, said fast enforcement of such modifications is beneficial to Guangzhou's disease control situation.

"We can now dedicate our limited epidemiological investigation force to examining cases that bring a higher risk of community transmission, and devote more personnel to screening and community services to identify hidden cases more quickly," he said.

The new categorization of risk areas has been applied quickly in virus-hit locations.

Qin Jingna, a community official in Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia autonomous region, said the risk level in a community of about 5,400 residents was downgraded from high to low on Friday evening, and residents were allowed to go outdoors on Saturday.

"The most recent positive case found in the community was reported on Nov 3, with the patient transported to designated facilities on Nov 4," she said. "The old categorization would have labeled our area medium risk, but under the new rule, we are low risk.

"All the residents are happy with this news, and we will continue to enforce other virus containment measures mentioned in the notice," Qin said.

A resident surnamed Wang, who lives in another large community in Hohhot, said that in the past, she and her neighbors were required to stay indoors when positive cases were reported in just a few buildings scattered throughout the area.

"The new rule means that only those units with positive cases will be locked down," she said.

Wang Yong, a senior official in Hohhot, said on Saturday that high-risk areas that meet the requirements for lifting or lowering their categorization of risk should act quickly.

As of Saturday, at-risk neighborhoods in the city had been inspected under the new categorization rules, with about 150 high-risk residential complexes and 350 high-risk buildings reassessed as low risk.

Workers prepare food supplies in Haizhu district, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, on Friday. [Photo/CHINA DAILY]

Enhanced help

In Beijing, as part of the 20 new measures, help is being stepped up for people stranded outside the city for extended periods.

Li Yuanyun, an entrepreneur who has traveled extensively in South China for business in the past two months, finally returned to the capital on Saturday.

"I was really distressed when my digital health code status was abnormal, and all company meetings had to be held online," he said. "Being able to return to Beijing means a lot for my business, and I hope that in the future, I can continue to travel in and out of the city smoothly."

Xu Hejian, spokesman for the Beijing municipal government, said on Sunday that the city will continue to improve policies for those leaving and returning to the capital, in particular, making this easier for truck drivers, students, commuters and people planning hospital visits.

In Shanghai, many residents found over the weekend that planned testing in neighborhoods had been called off, in line with the new protocol prohibiting the reckless launch of large-scale nucleic acid testing.

Wang Yanmei, a lawyer based in Shanghai, said: "I still went to a testing booth on the street this morning, because taking public transportation and entering shopping malls requires a negative test result within 72 hours. Nevertheless, as a citizen, it is reassuring to see that policy from the top leadership being acted on so quickly at grassroots level."

On Sunday, the Shanghai municipal government reiterated that the city will no longer carry out mass nucleic acid screening at the administrative division level, apart from special cases where transmission chains are unclear.

The municipal authorities also said nursery care centers and primary and high schools will conduct tests on campus three times a week as part of measures to upgrade testing strategies for schools.

Task forces

Lei, the health commission vice-minister, said another way to guarantee that the new measures are enforced is to require local governments to set up a task force to oversee rectification of malpractices such as turning away patients for virus control reasons, or recklessly expanding controlled areas.

In Chongqing, Yang Lin, spokesman for the municipal government, said it has guided communities to connect with nearby hospitals and drugstores, and in checking the condition of vulnerable groups.

Zhou Yue, 35, who is seven months pregnant, booked an antenatal checkup at a local hospital for later this month, but on Friday, her residential complex in Chongqing was hit by an outbreak of COVID-19.

She said property managers contacted her, taking note of her apartment number, the hospital she intended to visit, and her medical requirements.

"I have been worried about the provision of healthcare services during the epidemic, but I can see that the neighborhood has made considerate arrangements. I feel reassured and can now rest at home," Zhou said.

Inhaled COVID-19 vaccination is launched in Shanghai last month. [Photo/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]

Concrete changes

The notice issued on Friday is set to trigger more concrete changes beyond virus control for the manufacturing sector and cross-border visits.

Wang Hao, governor of the major manufacturing province of Zhejiang, said during a news conference on Friday that when an outbreak occurs, at least 80 percent of factories in areas at risk should try to maintain operations, and that at least 80 percent of production capacity should be sustained.

In the United States, Liu Xinyi, a Chinese citizen living in Texas, was relieved to hear that the circuit breaker system — a mechanism that halts international air routes if positive cases are found onboard flights — had been abolished.

"This means that more flights to China will be resumed and that airfares will drop. An economy ticket from Texas to China used to cost as much as $6,000, but now I reckon the price is around $2,000," Liu said.

On Friday, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said it would advance the recovery of air passenger travel in line with the policy modification.

Liu said that reducing the centralized quarantine period for international passengers is also a boon for the elderly and children, who often find it harder to adjust to unfamiliar isolation facilities.

Continuing battle

Wang Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said regular monitoring and taking early precautions against the epidemic should be stepped up. Sufficient testing, epidemiological investigation, quarantine and community management resources should be prepared, Wang added.

In Guangzhou, some quarantined groups released from centralized facilities over the weekend will need to undergo home-based isolation for three more days, as required.

"The new rule poses different requirements for the community management of such groups, and our community managers are making adaptations," Zhang, from the local center for disease control and prevention, said.

Zhang said it will be challenging to implement the new risk categorization in certain areas of the densely populated city, where some buildings are extremely close together.

"It is a test of our epidemiological survey capacity, and we should be even more meticulous," he said.

Du Juan in Beijing, Tan Yingzi in Chongqing, Yuan Hui in Hohhot and Cang Wei in Nanjing contributed to this story.