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Shanghai becomes China's COVID epicenter as cases surge

Financial hub denies 'rumors' of plans for a citywide lockdown

A delivery worker passes food to a woman over the barriers of an area in Shanghai under lockdown. The financial hub recorded its highest daily infections this week.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI - Shanghai resembled a ghost town Friday as rolling lockdowns shuttered neighborhoods across the financial hub of 25 million people, which has quickly become the epicenter of China's worst coronavirus outbreak.

The city's whack-a-mole approach to clamping down on infections, a linchpin of Beijing's zero-COVID policy, left some hospitals dangerously short-staffed as personnel were shifted to conduct mass-testing across the metropolis, which posted its highest-ever daily caseload this week.

The problem came into stark view after a nurse at Shanghai East Hospital was turned away from her own employer's emergency room while suffering a severe asthma attack. She later died, the hospital confirmed on Friday. The ward had been closed for virus prevention work.

News of the woman's death this week spread like wildfire on Chinese social media.

"This is murder," one person wrote on the Twitter-like Weibo app. "Regardless of the illness, why can't the hospital prioritize emergencies and not use COVID prevention as an excuse."

Officials are also scrambling to stamp out rumors about plans for a citywide lockdown, which they have denied, but that hasn't stopped panicked residents from clearing store shelves. Police in the city say they are investigating two people accused of making up lockdown rumors.

"Please do not believe and spread rumors," Shanghai's government said on Weibo.

Delivery workers are passing food over barriers to some residents in neighborhoods blocked off with temporary fences and metal blockades, fueling frustration from people who cannot leave their homes.

"Today is our 20th day in quarantine," said Hu Xiaokang, who lives in Minhang District, which has been designated high risk. "Initially, we were told to expect a 14-day lockdown but that was extended for another two days, and another two days and another two days."

The hair salon operator said his business was on the verge of going bust.

"How much longer do we have to endure this," Hu said, raising his voice. "Rent and wages still need to be taken care of despite not being able to open for business."

Shanghai reported a record 1,609 virus infections on Thursday alone. That vaulted it past other hot spot cities, including Jilin and Changchun in China's northeast, and accounted for one-third of some 4,790 cases nationwide.

The highly contagious omicron variant has tested China's virus policies as the country's caseload jumped to its highest levels since the respiratory illness was first reported in Wuhan more than two years ago. China recorded the first COVID deaths in more than a year this past weekend.

"The number of cases has increased exponentially due to so many asymptomatic cases from the omicron strain, making prevention and control very difficult," Zhang Wenhong, head of Shanghai's COVID-19 treatment team, acknowledged on Thursday.

China has reported 137,231 cases and an official death toll of 4,638.

While those numbers are low globally, China has maintained some of the world's strictest measures for battling coronavirus, even as some Western and Asian nations move toward living with the virus and ease their border controls.

Shanghai and Shenzhen, a factory hub bordering Hong Kong that is home to major suppliers to US tech group Apple, began shutting down this month as the outbreak surged, while authorities sealed off the entire northeastern province of Jilin, home to about 24 million people, after it reported thousands of new infections.

This week, steelmaking center Tangshan said residents who were not essential workers must stay home until further notice.

The northeastern city of Shenyang, meanwhile, warned that its 9 million residents must go through another three rounds of testing, while most companies were ordered to suspend operations. BMW Group said production at all its plants in Shenyang would be halted from Thursday.

But, as Shenzhen emerges from lockdowns and Hong Kong eases restrictions despite thousands of new daily cases, Shanghai is ramping up its so-called "grid screening", a strategy to mass test residential districts deemed high risk and then seal them off if infections are found.

While the number of new cases found this way had declined to about 10% of the total, Zhang said it was "inevitable" that the approach would continue for the time being.

The city shut its Shanghai Disney Resort from Monday and many restaurants were either closed or offering take-away service only.

The usually bustling streets of Shanghai's central business district in Lujiazui and West Nanjing Road have been largely deserted in recent days. Public transit was cut in half and many white-collar workers opted to stay at home, after earlier lockdowns trapped employees in their offices. Images of staff rolling out sleeping bags at their workplaces have gone viral online.

Michael Zeng, a software engineer whose office was put under quarantine without warning last month, wasn't taking any chances this time around.

"I rather stay at home than be caught by sudden lockdown in the office again," he said.

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