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China declares new outbreak contained after massive testing effort

Beijing's experience could provide a glimpse of what life might look like as new outbreaks arise in the U.S.
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BEIJING — Test. Restrict. Repeat.

Two weeks ago the Chinese capital went into "wartime emergency mode," renewing fears about a potential second coronavirus spike. Now, according to health officials, the outbreak is contained and the daily increase in cases has now mostly fallen to single digits.

With concerns running high about a second wave of coronavirus infections in the United States, the experience in Beijing could provide a glimpse of what life might look like as new outbreaks arise.

Nearly 270 new locally transmitted coronavirus cases were reported since June 11 in Beijing, prompting a wave of testing, travel restrictions and contact tracing.

As the new cases soared in the capital, tried-and-tested measures, including temperature checks, made a comeback. But there wasn’t the total lockdown like during Beijing's first brush with the virus in January with the government careful not to jeopardize the reopening of the economy, which had been stifled by months of lockdowns.

“Beijing will not turn into a second Wuhan,” Zeng Guang, a senior expert with China's National Health Commission, said early on in the new outbreak as the city vied to stop the virus in its tracks. Wuhan, where the pandemic is believed to have originated, was the first city to go into a complete lockdown, leaving 11 million residents stuck inside for 11 weeks.

Image: Swab tests in China
People line up for COVID-19 swabs at a government testing site in the Xicheng district of Beijing on Wednesday. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

China has been criticized for mishandling the initial phase of the pandemic, silencing whistleblowers, failing to act fast and not involving the World Health Organization in the investigation into the origins of the virus. It has seen more than 83,000 cases on the mainland, and 4,634 deaths.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, the U.S. reached a single-day high for new reported coronavirus cases of 45,557, according to an NBC News tally. So far, nearly 2.4 million cases have been confirmed in the U.S., with 122,661 deaths. Trailing the U.S. are Brazil and the United Kingdom, with 53,830 and 43,165 reported deaths respectively as of Thursday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Until a vaccine is found, Beijing’s new outbreak could provide an example for what life in a pandemic could look like as the virus returns to areas where it was previously deemed to be under control.

The revival of the virus in the capital has been linked to the Xinfadi wholesale food market that supplies about 80 percent of the city’s food. Local officials sealed the market and locked down the neighborhoods around it.

More than 350,000 people who had gone to Xinfadi since May 30 have been traced, tested and quarantined, according to the authorities. Overall, health officials said, more than 2.8 million residents have been tested in just over a week.

“The situation is still critical, but effectively under control,” Lei Haichao, the director of the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said during a recent media briefing.

Testing sites have popped up everywhere around the capital, home to some 21 million people. They have been set up in hospitals, sports centers and even soccer fields.

NBC News obtained access to one of the nearly 500 testing sites set up across the city that officials say can handle half a million people a day, a number officials say can grow to a million a day if they have to.

NBC News could not independently verify this claim.

Image: COVID-19 testing in China
A boy is swabbed for COVID-19 at a government testing site in Beijing on Monday. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The testing is publicized, and those interested are encouraged to get in touch with their neighborhood committee, a local council. From there, a list is generated and people are told where and when to show up.

Certain groups such as delivery workers, restaurant employees and health care workers had to undergo mandatory testing. For everyone else, it’s encouraged.

“I feel safer,” a woman said at a testing site in the capital's Xicheng district Wednesday. “It’s also a security guarantee for my family and friends.”

Meanwhile, the testing strategy in the U.S. is somewhat muddled.

President Donald Trump said last week the surge in cases is the result of increased testing, with 25 million tests conducted so far.

But public health officials say that while that’s true, the data shows the virus is spreading more too, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warning Wednesday of “a disturbing surge of infections” in parts of the country.

Janis Mackey Frayer and Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing. Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.