Beijing’s Testing Surge

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Beijing is racing to test nearly all of its 22 million residents three times over five days in a high-stakes bid to avoid a similar fate as Shanghai, where millions of residents have been forced into an almost unbearable monthlong lockdown.

Today millions of Beijing residents took their second round of tests, and officials from the Chinese capital announced that they had uncovered an additional 46 cases. The city identified three more neighborhoods today as high-risk and four more as medium-risk, designations that both prompt lockdowns.

Overall, it has been a stressful week in the capital, said my colleague Keith Bradsher, The Times’s new Beijing bureau chief, who lives a half-hour walk from the main outbreak — a square-mile area now under police-enforced lockdown.

“Many here in Beijing were terrified on Sunday when city officials said that the virus had slipped into the city and gone through multiple rounds of transmission for at least a week,” Keith said, and Beijing residents feared a harsh lockdown like Shanghai’s. “Beijing residents flocked to supermarkets to stockpile food, emptying shelves. But the authorities and businesses have swiftly ramped up food shipments.”

Despite the initial alarm, Keith told me that the first round of testing of almost all of the city’s 22 million residents found only 138 cases, so “a watchful calm is beginning to return.”

In Shanghai, officials today appeared to be making gradual progress in bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control. The city announced its lowest total for new cases in weeks: 12,309.

Zhao Dandan, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference that the authorities would allow limited activities in areas with no more virus transmission outside of quarantine but would maintain the lockdown of the rest of the city.

But growing anger and anxiety over the Shanghai lockdown is posing a rare challenge for China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, which has pushed a triumphalist narrative of the Covid response. Residents have compiled footage from their daily lives, showing rotting food or shouting matches with local officials, and they have banded together to repost deleted content.

“Many in Shanghai,” Keith said, “never imagined that they would be sealed in their homes for weeks with limited access to food.”

But so far, the response in the city’s capital has been different.

“Shanghai did a single round of citywide testing only after it had more than 1,000 cases in mid-March,” Keith said. However, “Beijing has mobilized 139,000 workers to do three rounds of citywide testing this week in a much faster response to an outbreak. But no one really knows whether that will be enough to control the highly transmissible Omicron variant.”

While relatively few people in China have been exposed to the virus, leaving the country vulnerable to a rapid surge of infections, Americans have faced the pathogen at almost every turn.

According to new research from the C.D.C., 60 percent of Americans — including 75 percent of children — had been infected with the coronavirus by February.

Omicron seems be responsible for much of the toll. In December last year, as the highly contagious variant began spreading, only half as many people had antibodies indicating prior infection.

The astonishing milestone was certainly not reached by design and came at an immense human and economic cost. But the data may signal good news. A high level of population-wide immunity and resistance may offer at least a partial bulwark against future waves.

The trend may also explain why the surge that is now roaring through China and many European countries has been muted in the U.S. A high percentage of previous infections may also mean that there are now fewer cases of life-threatening illness or death relative to infections.

When asked about the new infection numbers, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a television interview yesterday that he “wasn’t terribly surprised.”

Fauci said that infection and hospitalization rates had plummeted and that intermittent boosters would help keep infection rates low.

“We’re not going to eradicate this virus,” he told “PBS NewsHour.” “But, right now, we are not in the pandemic phase in this country.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Fauci cautioned that the global pandemic was continuing.

“The world is still in a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that,” Fauci said. “Don’t anybody get any misinterpretation of that. We are still experiencing a pandemic.”

Fauci also said he would not attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on Saturday “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.” His withdrawal comes amid a great deal of hand-wringing that the event could become a superspreader event similar to the Gridiron Club dinner a few weeks ago, after which a number of Washington’s elite tested positive.

Since my husband, brother and I are over 72, we have requested — for every holiday — that everyone tests before getting together. It’s worked well — until Easter, when we let down our guard and didn’t test. Five days later more than half the group, including young children, tested positive for Covid. Fortunately, three elders are still OK, but we’re holding our breaths. BA.2 is striking with a vengeance, according to many families just like ours. The numbers just aren’t accurate! Take care of yourselves. We’re on our own now.

— Julie Nilsson, Fort Collins, Co.

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