China students return home amid fears of COVID-19 spread

BEIJING (AP) — Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to finish the semester from home in hopes of reducing the potential for a bigger COVID-19 outbreak during the January Lunar New Year travel rush.

It wasn’t clear how many schools were participating, but universities in Shanghai and nearby cities said students would be given the option of returning home early or staying on campus and undergoing testing every 48 hours. The Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 22, is traditionally China’s busiest travel season.

Universities have had frequent lockdowns in the past three years, occasionally leading to clashes between authorities and students confined to campus or even their dorm rooms.

With so many people staying home, Beijing’s downtown streets were eerily quiet Tuesday, giving it the feel of a voluntary lockdown. Small lines formed outside fever clinics — which have recently increased from 94 to 303 — and at pharmacies, where cold and flu medications are harder to find.

Restaurants were mostly closed or empty, as many businesses are having difficulty finding enough staff who haven’t gotten infected. Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s most popular shopping districts, was deserted despite having its anti-COVID fences taken down in recent days.

Tuesday’s announcements came as China begins relaxing its strict “zero-COVID” policy, allowing people with mild symptoms to stay home rather than be sent to a quarantine center, among other changes that followed widespread protests.

Starting Tuesday, China stopped tracking some travel, potentially reducing the likelihood people will be forced into quarantine for visiting COVID-19 hot spots. Despite that, China’s international borders remain largely shut and there has been no word on when restrictions will be eased on inbound travelers and Chinese wanting to go overseas.

The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it was ending many of the strictest measures, following three years during which it enforced some of the world’s tightest virus restrictions.

Last month in Beijing and several other cities, protests over the restrictions grew into calls for leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down — a level of public dissent not seen in decades.

While met with relief, the relaxation also has sparked concerns about a new wave of infections potentially overwhelming health care resources in some areas.

Despite a push to boost vaccinations among the elderly, two centers set up in Beijing to administer shots were empty except for medical personnel. Despite fears of a major outbreak, there was little evidence of a surge in patient numbers.

At the Beixinqiao district vaccination center, 10 nurses waiting to give shots stood in an otherwise empty auditorium. The nurses declined interviews, saying they needed official permission.

“With the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus as it spreads around the world, our country is coming under increasing pressure, and the epidemic prevention control situation is serious and complicated,” a sign outside the office said.

“The whole world agrees that getting vaccinated is the most effective way of combating the epidemic. … Please, elderly friends, get vaccinated as quickly and as early as possible!”

While first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have invested heavily in their medical systems, less-developed cities and the vast rural hinterland have far fewer resources and will likely spell the difference on whether China finds itself overwhelmed.

Many residents of mainland China have taken to ordering medication from pharmacies in Hong Kong, which has already relaxed many restrictions.

The government of the semi-autonomous southern city took a further step Tuesday, saying it would remove restrictions for arriving travelers that currently prevent them from dining in restaurants or going to bars for the first three days.

It would also scrap the use of its contact-tracing app, although vaccine requirements to enter venues like restaurants will remain in place. Those going from Hong Kong to mainland China and Macao will no longer have to take a PCR test at border checkpoints, although they still face several days in quarantine on the mainland side. The new measures take effect Wednesday.

Hong Kong will gradually reduce PCR testing, including the compulsory screening notices issued to residential buildings, and more rapid test kits will be given out in the community, according to the city’s health minister.

The easing of controls on the mainland means a sharp drop in obligatory testing from which daily infections numbers are compiled, but cases appear to be rising rapidly, with many people testing themselves at home and staying away from hospitals.

China reported 7,451 new infections Monday, bringing the nation’s total to 372,763 — more than double the level on Oct. 1. It has recorded 5,235 deaths — compared with 1.1 million in the United States.

China’s government-supplied figures have not been independently verified and questions have been raised about whether the Communist Party has sought to minimize numbers of cases and deaths.

The U.S. consulates in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang and the central city of Wuhan will offer only emergency services from Tuesday “in response to increased number of COVID-19 cases,” the State Department said.

“Mission China makes every effort to ensure full consular services are available to U.S. citizens living in the PRC, but further disruptions are possible,” an emailed message said, using the initials for China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.

Xi’s government is still officially committed to stopping virus transmission. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or shutting down travel or businesses as it winds down its “zero-COVID” strategy.

Amid the unpredictable messaging from Beijing, experts warn there still is a chance the party might reverse course and reimpose restrictions if a large-scale outbreak ensues.

The change in policy comes after protests erupted Nov. 25 after 10 people died in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many questioned whether COVID-19 restrictions impeded rescue efforts. Authorities denied the claims spread online, but demonstrators gave voice to longstanding frustration in cities such as Shanghai that have endured severe lockdowns.

The party responded with a massive show of force and an unknown number of people were arrested at the protests or in the days following.

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Associated Press writers Zen Soo and Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Dake Kang in Beijing contributed.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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