Officials in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin, near Beijing, said on Sunday that its entire population of 14 million would be tested for the coronavirus after it was found in 20 residents, at least two of whom were infected with the fast-moving Omicron variant.
The city also announced a raft of restrictions in an effort to contain the outbreak and trace its source. The first infections were confirmed on Saturday, in a 10-year-old girl and a 29-year-old woman who works at an after-school center. Tracing and testing later that day led to 18 more positive tests among their contacts, including 15 students.
Tianjin is about 70 miles from Beijing, so the burst of cases is especially worrisome for Chinese leaders, with the capital preparing to host the Winter Olympics in less than a month.
Li Hongzhong, the Communist Party secretary for Tianjin, vowed that the city would “fulfill to the utmost” its role as a “moat” protecting Beijing, official news outlets reported.
“The city’s pandemic prevention is at a crucial moment,” Mr. Li told officials, according to the state-run Tianjin Daily. “Tracing the source of the outbreak must be the most urgent and important task.”
Citywide testing is nothing new to China. But even with the country’s enormous resources for testing residents and tracing their movements, getting a handle on the outbreak in Tianjin might not be easy.
Zhang Ying, deputy director of the Tianjin Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference that the virus may have “been already spreading in the community for some time” before detection. Neither the 29-year old woman nor the 10-year old girl who tested positive had recently left Tianjin.
Government experts also said the Omicron strain found in the two Tianjin residents might not be the same as that found in recent international arrivals in the city.
Many Chinese people have been proud that their country, since quelling the world’s first outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, has avoided the waves of infections that have swept most of the world. But the authoritarian state’s stringent controls, which have kept China largely sealed off, have not been able to keep the virus out entirely, and the extreme contagiousness of Omicron could present a new level of danger.
The Tianjin authorities ordered residents to limit their travel and not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. They also put about 30 residential areas under comprehensive lockdowns and shut some subway stations.
But officials also seemed to try to reassure residents that Tianjin would not repeat the missteps of Xi’an, a city of 13 million in northwestern China. Xi’an saw a surge of public anger after a rushed lockdown led to food shortages and to some people being refused medical treatment, including at least one pregnant woman who suffered a miscarriage after being denied entry to a hospital.
Mr. Li, the Tianjin party chief, told local officials to ensure that residents received their daily needs, including medical care.