China reports first COVID-19 deaths in over a year

BEIJING – Chinese health authorities reported two deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, the first since January 2021, as the country battles its worst outbreak in two years, caused by a surge in the highly transmissible variant of omicron.

The deaths, both in the northeastern province of Jilin, bring the country’s coronavirus death toll to 4,638.

Both deaths occurred in elderly patients and were the result of their underlying conditions, Jiao Yahui, an official with the National Health Commission, said at a press conference on Saturday. One of them had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, she said.

The majority of the 2,157 new community transmissions reported on Saturday were from Jilin. The province has imposed a travel ban, with people needing police clearance to cross borders.

Nationwide, China has reported more than 29,000 confirmed cases since early March.

It has continued its tried-and-tested policy of mass lockdown and testing of millions as part of a successful, albeit cumbersome, “zero-COVID” strategy since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in 2019.

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The country has seen relatively few infections of the virus so far, as clusters are cleared as quickly as they are discovered. The strategy received popular support and prevented the large number of deaths seen in other countries, many of which have begun to forego any sort of social distancing measures.

Faced with the worst outbreak since late 2019, officials pledged to double down on the zero tolerance strategy to contain multiple outbreaks across China. However, leader Xi Jinping for the first time acknowledged the weight of the measures on Thursday, saying China should seek “maximum effect” with “minimum cost” in controlling the virus.

Hong Kong, which is facing its worst surge of the pandemic, recorded 16,583 new cases on Saturday. The city’s total coronavirus infections topped 1 million on Friday, and its death toll has already surpassed that of mainland China.

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Mainland China COVID-19 data is counted separately from Hong Kong, a special administrative region.

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