COVID spread baffles locked-down Shanghai residents

COVID spread baffles locked-down Shanghai residents

By Brenda Goh

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Veronica thought she had done everything right by adhering to all COVID-19 lockdown rules in the Chinese city of Shanghai.

After the entire city shut down on April 1, her family of four scrupulously followed government orders to stay home, only going out the front door for mandatory PCR tests.

When the curbs were eased slightly in mid-April, allowing residents to walk around their compound, Veronica and her neighbors were all wearing masks.

For weeks, their housing estate was COVID-free.

But in late April, after what Veronica believes to be her 12th PCR test, she, another family member and a handful of neighbors tested positive.

“I have no idea how we caught it,” said Veronica, who declined to give her full name, citing confidentiality.

His building was declared “sealed”. She, her family and others who tested positive were quarantined. All others were ordered to go indoors for another 14 days.

“I followed all the rules,” Veronica said from a quarantine center where she and her family are confined with hundreds of people in a large hall.

Veronica is among thousands of people who have caught COVID in sealed, coronavirus-free compounds for weeks.

The cases underscore how difficult it is to stop the spread of the highly transmissible variant of Omicron as China clings to its zero-COVID policy, perpetuating a cycle of lockdowns, as well as bewilderment, angst and anger.

Between April 21 and May 2, residents at 4,836 different addresses found themselves in a similar situation, with infections surging after weeks in the clear, according to a Reuters review of Shanghai government data.

On April 30 alone, 471 addresses were recorded as having found at least one case, after recording none in the previous 29 days. The number of inhabitants at a given address varied from a handful to hundreds.

Shanghai’s lockdown measures have been extremely strict, particularly in the first two weeks of April, with residents only allowed out of the compounds for exceptional reasons, such as a medical emergency. Many are not even allowed to leave their homes to mingle with neighbors.

The number of daily cases in Shanghai has declined for six consecutive days, but the thousands of new cases that are still being discovered every day are prompting speculation about the spread of COVID, debate over the wisdom of the “zero-COVID” policy and the fear of infection.

WORK, TO A POINT

Seeking answers, many residents report queuing for the all-too-frequent PCR tests, or deliveries of food and other items, all of which rely on volunteers, property management staff and couriers.

Some people have even started refusing PCR tests, leading to penalties for non-compliance.

The Shanghai government, asked for comment, referred to April 14 remarks by city health official Wu Huanyu, who said infection through the distribution of supplies could not be ruled out, among other possibilities.

Health experts say the relentless spread indicates China’s difficulty in sticking to its zero COVID goal.

“Their zero COVID policy is working up to a point, but they will continue to be hit hard, especially when they haven’t used this time to get high coverage of their most vulnerable population,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, referring to China’s relatively low vaccination rates compared to other places.

Jaya Dantas, a public health expert at Australia’s Curtin School of Population Health, said China’s approach had come with high costs and eliminating transmission completely would take months.

“They’ve been efficient but really tough with constant testing that is resource-intensive, manpower-intensive and financially-intensive. The impacts on people’s mental health are also significant,” she said.

Lockdowns in Shanghai and dozens of other cities have sparked rare public displays of discontent, especially as the continued emergence of relatively low numbers of infections prolongs the lockdown of millions more.

Each new case has multiple consequences: the COVID-positive person and their relatives must go into quarantine. All neighbors in their building must self-isolate for 14 days, with the clock resetting each time a new case is detected.

Veronica says she was scarred by the experience.

“Don’t leave your apartment, but I don’t even know if that helps anymore,” she said.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Natalie Grover in London; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel)

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