China experiences surge in COVID-19 cases after relaxing travel and quarantine policies

In the past six weeks, China has seen major outbreaks of COVID-19 in several cities and tourist areas across the country. On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) reported 114 new symptomatic infections domestically and 512 asymptomatic infections nationwide, both numbers falling significantly compared to a few weeks ago.

Since early July, when Shanghai began easing restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there have been a number of outbreaks of the highly infectious subvariant BA.5.2 Omicron in the city and other metropolitan areas.

In mid-July, the NHC announced that the Zero-COVID strategy had entered a new phase and was gradually becoming less stringent. The most significant policy change was a reduction in the quarantine period for people arriving from high-risk areas and international arrivals from 14 days to 7 days. There have also been adjustments to the definition of medium and high risk areas to allow for faster reopening and shorter lockdowns.

NHC officials have said the looser plan is designed to keep infections as close to zero as possible while minimizing disruption to the general population and economy. The shorter isolation times have also been adapted to the characteristics of the Omicron variant, which has a shorter incubation period than previous variants.

Residents wearing face masks queue to receive their routine COVID-19 throat swabs at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

On August 31, the General Administration of Customs lifted the requirement for visitors to report their nucleic acid test results, infection status and vaccination records. Once these new, less stringent protocols began to be enforced, it was predictable that every province in China would have some level of outbreak.

On July 6, a small number of BA.5.2 cases were detected in Xi’an, Shaanxi, leading to a seven-day “silence” period rather than a fully implemented city-wide lockdown. Crowded indoor leisure facilities have been temporarily shut down, in-person restaurants have been shuttered, summer vacations for schools have started early, and large organized gatherings have been postponed. The same strategy was repeated in the northwestern city of Lanzhou, Gansu, on July 11 after new cases were reported.

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