Officials in Beijing have reported the city’s first case of the Omicron variant, prompting authorities to order an immediate lockdown and mass testing in one neighborhood just three weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the capital city.
Speaking at a news briefing on Saturday night, an official from the high-tech Haidian District in western Beijing said that the authorities had temporarily cordoned off the infected person’s residential compound and workplace. Health officials collected 2,430 samples for testing from people linked to the two locations.
The detection of the highly-transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant in Beijing comes as China has been racing to stamp out a series of concurrent outbreaks around the country as part of a broader effort to adhere to the government’s policy of “zero tolerance” for the coronavirus.
Authorities in Beijing in particular have been on heightened alert. The city is China’s political center and home to the country’s top leaders. It is also now gearing up for the arrival of thousands of Olympic athletes, officials and journalists who will stay in a tightly-restricted bubble in the city without having to do the mandatory quarantine that is required of most inbound travelers to China. The Olympics are set to start on Feb. 4.
“Beijing has entered the Winter Olympics moment, and it faces the dual pressure of defending against imported cases and preventing the rebound of the outbreak,” Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the Beijing municipal government, said at the briefing. “The newly reported locally transmitted case today has set off a new alarm for the pandemic prevention and control effort.”
Even before the Omicron case was confirmed on Saturday, Beijing had been taking extreme precautions to fortify the city against the virus. Travel to the capital from virus-affected areas around the country has been severely restricted. Dozens of international and domestic flights into the city have been suspended. And Beijing residents have been urged to stay put, even for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, typically the busiest travel week of the year.
Still, reports that Omicron had breached those formidable defenses were not entirely surprising. Tianjin, a nearby port city connected to Beijing by a 30-minute high-speed rail link, has recently been battling its own Omicron outbreak, and there have been signs that the variant was circulating in the city for nearly two weeks before it was detected.
Local transmission of Omicron has now been reported in at least five provinces and municipalities across the country, including Guangdong Province and the city of Shanghai. On Saturday, China’s National Health Commission reported 104 locally transmitted coronavirus cases.
The Beijing authorities’ heightened vigilance was on display on Saturday night at the news conference as two officials separately went into meticulous detail about the recent travel history of the confirmed Omicron case. According to authorities, the infected person visited many places around the city in two weeks, including a McDonald’s, a beef noodle shop and a Peking duck restaurant, where the person used the bathroom.