SHANGHAI: China reported two COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, its first in more than a year, underlining the threat posed by an Omicron outbreak that has triggered the country’s highest case counts since the pandemic’s outset.
The National Health Commission said both deaths occurred in Jilin, the northeastern province which has been hardest-hit by a nationwide rise in cases that has prompted lockdowns or tight restrictions in several cities.
The deaths were the first reported in mainland China since January 2021, and bring the country’s total death toll in the pandemic to 4,638.
In all, China reported 4,051 new cases on Saturday, down from 4,365 the day before, the health commission said, with more than half of the new cases coming in Jilin.
Beijing’s communist leadership has touted its low death rate relative to other countries as evidence of the strength of its one-party governance model.
The two new deaths were buried in the health commission’s daily report, and state-controlled media outlets made little mention of them.
‘Zero-COVID’ under pressure
The coronavirus emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 but China has largely kept it under control through strict border controls, lengthy quarantines and targeted lockdowns.
But the highly transmissible Omicron variant is posing a stern challenge to the effectiveness and long-term viability of the government’s “zero-COVID” strategy.
In recent weeks some official sources have suggested China may at some point need to co-exist with COVID-19 as other countries are doing, while also warning of the economic impact of mass lockdowns.
President Xi Jinping said on Thursday that China would stick with its zero-COVID strategy, while also allowing for a more “targeted” approach.
While in the past full lockdowns could be expected for any outbreak, authorities around the country have responded with varying measures to the latest viral spread.
Some cities have been closed off, including the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, home to 17.5 million people. But Shenzhen’s measures were partially eased following Xi’s comments.
Shanghai, meanwhile, has moved schooling online and rolled out mass testing, but has averted a full lockdown.
Authorities also have said that people with mild cases could isolate at central quarantine facilities, having previously sent all patients with any symptoms to specialist hospitals.
But tens of millions of people remain under stay-at-home orders across China due to an outbreak that has sent daily reported new cases soaring from less than 100 just three weeks ago to several thousand per day now.
Beijing also has watched nervously as Hong Kong has struggled to contain an Omicron outbreak that has sent deaths in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city soaring into the thousands.
Mainland China officials have also moved to free up hospital beds over fears the virus could put the health system under strain.
Jilin has built eight “makeshift hospitals” and two quarantine centres to stem the current upsurge.
State news outlets this week broadcast footage of dozens of giant cranes assembling temporary medical facilities in Jilin, which has only around 23,000 hospital beds for some 24 million residents.
The latest flare-ups also have prompted long queues to form outside mass testing sites across China and seen tight controls at ports, raising fears of trade disruption.