In the latest wave, the highly transmissible omicron variant has moved more quickly than contact tracing allows.



An entire province in China is under lockdown as the country combats the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases in two years. The country's pandemic approach has managed to contain outbreaks before. But reining back the omicron variant is proving the biggest challenge yet. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For more than two years, China's tried and true method for keeping cases close to zero has been trace, test and isolate all infections, their close contacts and the close contacts of those people faster than the virus can spread. But what happens when a variant moves more quickly than contact tracing? In the northern province of Jilin, daily case counts topped 3,000 on Monday alone, leaving health officials scrambling to catch up to omicron. Here's Jilin health commission official Zhang Yan this past weekend.


ZHANG YAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, "our medical resources were insufficient, meaning our ability to isolate people quickly was limited. And our emergency response was not enough." The result has been a return to full lockdown of Jilin province, home to 24 million people. In Shanghai and Beijing, all schooling has been moved online indefinitely. China has contained omicron outbreaks before. But none has gotten as big as the current surge. And the strain is already showing because cities are running out of isolation facilities to put tens of thousands of close contacts. Here's Zhang again.


ZHANG Y: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, "we misjudged the omicron variant. And the government's monitoring has not been good enough." Even before this surge, a minority of voices had been calling for a new approach - to vaccinate heavily and begin living with an endemic COVID. One of these voices is Zhang Wenhong, the well-known director of a Shanghai hospital.

ZHANG WENHONG: Almost before the vaccine launched, we know that we have to live with the virus.

FENG: This week, Zhang penned a long online essay saying China was not ready to open up just yet. But the recent outbreak showed China needed more sustainable long-term strategies. So far, health authorities say they will stick to zero COVID. The alternative, to live with COVID, would be disastrous in a country with a fragile hospital system. And they've done so well in the past at containing COVID that there's very little natural immunity. Nearby, Hong Kong is a warning of the cost of failure. The city is still logging more than 25,000 new cases a day and suffering the world's highest COVID rate of fatality.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.