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Beijing confines office building with workers inside after detecting a single case of omicron

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Hong Kong (CNN) — At an office building in China’s capital on Sunday, COVID-19 control staff carried boxes of pillows and bedding for workers trapped inside, bracing for what could be days of lockdown as Beijing scrambles to avoid the propagation of omicron before the Winter Olympics.

The building in the west of the city has been sealed off, and everyone inside is subject to mandatory covid-19 testing, after an employee tested positive for omicron on Saturday, the city’s first recorded case of the coronavirus variant. highly transmissible novel coronavirus.

For the past week, authorities in Beijing have been on high alert as an omicron outbreak spread in Tianjin, a major port city just 30 minutes away by high-speed train. The outbreak had already spread to two other cities hundreds of kilometers away.

According to detailed surveillance data collected by authorities, the omicron-infected Beijing woman had not been in contact with any confirmed cases and had not left the capital in the past 14 days, raising fears that the variant is already spreading. spreading in the community.

Unlike most of the world, China is following a zero-Covid strategy that relies on strict restrictions including large-scale testing, lockdowns and extended quarantine for international arrivals.

New round of massive covid-19 tests in Tianjin, China 0:37

The single case in Beijing was identified at the worst possible time for the city as it prepares to welcome thousands of athletes to the Olympics, including from countries where the omicron variant is unleashed.

The risk of the variant spreading among Beijing’s local population outside of its so-called Olympic bubble, which is intended to keep participants separate from the general public, comes as authorities warned of “double pressure from domestic and imported cases”.

After the woman’s case was confirmed, authorities sprang into action, imposing harsh quick lockdowns, trapping people in places like office buildings, and conducting extensive contact tracing and testing in high-risk areas.

The residential complex where the confirmed case lives is only a 15-minute drive from the Olympic Park. Since then, the entire community has been sealed off while people get tested and authorities conduct environmental sampling. CNN staff who passed through the complex over the weekend saw large barriers to prevent anyone from entering or leaving.

Residents inside are allowed to get some fresh air — in contrast to stricter lockdowns in other parts of the country that lock people in their apartments — but are not allowed outside the community boundaries. Garbage begins to accumulate within the complex, and only specially designated removal teams can handle it. Many nearby businesses are closed.

The woman’s workplace has been similarly closed, with large tents set up outside to conduct and process Covid-19 tests for everyone inside until the building is declared safe to reopen.

In another sign of the zealous official response, the woman’s travel history was published in state media, with extensive details on everywhere she went in a two-week period. The long list includes subway stations, public toilets, a supermarket, a luxury shopping mall and a Dior store, a famous Beijing duck restaurant, a movie theater, a hair salon, a stand-up comedy venue, and even an amusement park. ski.

More than 16,000 people linked to those locations have been tested and all results so far have been negative, authorities said Monday. The city has yet to report any more cases. At a news conference, authorities raised the possibility that the woman contracted the virus after handling international mail.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly blamed imported products for causing local outbreaks. However, the risk of surface transmission of covid-19 is low compared to airborne transmission, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus dies “quickly” on porous surfaces but can persist longer on hard indoor surfaces, the CDC said last year.

A shopping mall in Beijing is listed as closed on January 16 after news that the city detected its first case of omicron.

After news of Beijing’s only case emerged, many schools in affected districts switched to online classes this week, with the city shutting down several scenic spots and temples. As of January 22, all arrivals in the capital must undergo a covid-19 test both before and after arrival.

And despite the imminent arrival of thousands of Winter Olympic athletes for the start of the Games on February 4, Beijing has moved to suspend dozens of international flights. As of Wednesday, all flights from the United States to China have been canceled or are likely to be suspended.

Most athletes and staff take special flights restricted to people with Olympic credentials as part of the “closed-loop” bubble, which covers all stadiums, competition venues, accommodation and catering, and has its own transportation system.

Winter Olympics: US would lose flights to China 0:57

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, said the situation was still difficult to assess as authorities do not know where the woman was infected. “It is quite possible that new cases will emerge if the cause is not clear,” he said, according to the state-run Global Times tabloid.

Although any additional infection could prompt more restrictions in the coming days, there is no need to overreact to a single case, which would not affect the Olympics, Wang added.

The Beijing public appeared to share his sentiments, with crowds turning out for winter festivities over the weekend in stark contrast to localized lockdowns in some districts. On Sunday, many families flocked to a popular lake to ice skate on its icy waters.

In addition to Beijing, a growing list of cities in China are also struggling to control Covid-19 outbreaks and the omicron threat. The variant was first detected in the Tianjin community on January 8 and has since been found in seven other cities, including Beijing.

Many cities are now imposing restrictions, such as closing public spaces and banning restaurant dining, as well as suspending air travel to the capital.

Posts and videos on Chinese social media show several targeted rapid lockdowns in Shanghai in the past week. At one mall, shoppers were trapped for two days, with authorities testing everyone inside and ordering a deep cleaning before reopening.

A video posted on social media showed a woman outside the mall, crying and approaching a small child who was staring back at her from behind glass doors.

The measures may seem extreme, but they remain very popular with much of the Chinese public, the vast majority of whom are able to enjoy life as normal.

And with so much at stake, authorities are taking no chances, knowing that all eyes are on Beijing as the Games draw closer.

CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.

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