By Martin Quin Pollard and Bernard Orr
BEIJING, Nov 15 (Reuters) – COVID cases in China rose further on Tuesday, including in the capital Beijing, even as many cities reduced routine testing after authorities announced measures last week to mitigate the impact of the country’s heavy coronavirus control measures.
China is scrambling to limit the damage of its zero COVID policy nearly three years into the pandemic as the latest in a string of dismal economic reports showed retail sales tumbled in October and the Factory output grew more slowly than expected.
While many residents expressed cautious optimism after Friday’s announcement that some of the strict COVID policies would be relaxed, concerns grew this week over worsening outbreaks and there was confusion as some cities have halted or adjusted regular testing.
In Guangzhou, a southern city of nearly 19 million, new infections crossed 5,000 for the first time, fueling speculation that district-level lockdowns could expand.
“Guangzhou’s infection curve tracks the pace of Shanghai’s March-April outbreak, raising questions about whether a citywide lockdown will be triggered,” JPMorgan analysts wrote, referring to Shanghai’s two-month lockdown this year.
“It would become a test point for the government’s resolve to push for the relaxation of COVID control measures,” they said.
China reported 17,772 new local COVID-19 infections for Nov. 14, up from 16,072 new cases a day earlier and the most since April, with major cities like Chongqing and Zhengzhou among the hardest hit.
JPMorgan estimates that cities with more than 10 new cumulative cases over the past week are home to 780 million people and account for 62.2% of GDP, about triple levels seen at the end of September.
On Monday, Beijing’s most populous district, Chaoyang, where most of its cases are, moved some testing sites closer to residential compounds.
While this has increased the overall number of sites, it has also led to long wait times in many cases, fueling frustration as many workplaces and other places still require negative test results within 24 hours. .
On Weibo’s Twitter, a hashtag about test booth closures was flooded with critical comments on Monday night before being censored: “What are workers supposed to do?” wrote a Weibo user. Another asked: ‘What kind of brain came up with this policy?’
On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV said the Chaoyang district was adding more testing sites, including near office buildings.
Beijing reported 462 new infections on Monday, down from 407 the day before.
Under China’s new rules, testing efforts must be more targeted, easing what has been a significant financial burden on cities.
‘WHY IS OUR BUILDING CLOSED?’
Friday’s easing announcement sparked a rally in stocks on hopes that China would signal its intention to end a policy that has virtually closed its borders and caused frequent lockdowns, possibly starting after the annual session of Parliament in March.
But experts warn that fully reopening will require a massive vaccination booster effort, given the low levels of herd immunity resulting from China’s isolation during the pandemic. It will also require a change in messaging, they say, in a country where catching COVID is widely feared.
In Shanghai, which reported a relatively low number of infections, including 16 for Monday, entire buildings were still sealed off and the Shanghai Disney Resort has been closed since Oct. 31 after a visitor tested positive for COVID.
While the central government has called for a more flexible approach to controlling outbreaks, local authorities still have plenty of leeway to lock down buildings they assess as high risk.
“The rules are very clear, so why is our building closed? asked a Shanghai pensioner whose building was sealed off with tape on Monday morning after a “close contact” was removed and quarantined.
But the northern city of Shijiazhuang, which reported more than 500 infections on Sunday, halted citywide testing and no longer checks test results to use public transport, although passengers must still scan with a cellphone app, according to state-backed media outlet Jiemien.
Guangchang County in the eastern province of Jiangxi said it had canceled community tests it had scheduled for November 13 and 14 after tests conducted from November 8 to 10 all came back negative. (Reporting by Liz Lee, Martin Quin Pollard, Bernard Orr and Albee Zhang in Beijing and wang Jing and David Stanway in Shanghai; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)