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COVID has trickled back into China. Beijing is responding with a tsunami of containment measures.

China trying to contain COVID outbreaks
Beijing responds to COVID-19 outbreaks with tsunami of containment measures 02:18

Hong Kong — China is now facing its worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the early days of the global pandemic, reporting 71 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday. While that's a relatively small number compared to the soaring number of cases in the United States, it's the country's highest tally since January, and the government is responding aggressively.

The officially reported numbers are also small relative to China's population — nearly 500 among its population of 1.4 billion people since July 20th — but the reach of the resurgence is wide. Hotspots have flared up in more than 30 cities across at least 18 provinces. New daily infections have risen every day for nearly the past week.

"We cannot relax," said China's leading respiratory disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, over the weekend. "We must pay attention to the control measures … and establish herd immunity."  

A tsunami of containment measures

China's response has been a tidal wave of COVID testing, lockdowns, flight cancellations, postponement of sporting events and a rush to develop a booster shot to target the Delta variant. 

On Wednesday, China announced it was restricting international travel from the country for its residents, and would only allow people to leave the country under certain circumstances.

China's current COVID epicenter is the southern city of Nanjing, which has registered at least 223 cases, stemming from the city's airport, where staff cleaning a plane from Moscow contracted and spread the virus.

Since then, all 9 million residents of Nanjing have been forced to undergo compulsory COVID testing. Medium and high risk neighborhoods have been put under lockdown, the airport has been shut down, buses are banned from leaving the city, and people are only permitted to leave if they have a negative COVID test result from within 48 hours of departure.

The main urban area of nearby Yangzhou is also under lockdown, after police detained a woman who lied about her travel history, causing a flare-up of COVID cases in the city. 

"Where's the apology from the Nanjing government for putting other provinces and cities in danger," one user of Weibo, the popular Chinese social media site which is normally quick to scrub criticism of the government, posted.

"Nanjing's airport killed people," another user said.

A secondary COVID super-spreader event reportedly occurred on July 22 at a theater performance in the tourist city of Zhangjiajie, where thousands of attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder. The 1.5 million residents of Zhangjiajie are now under total lockdown, with everyone, including people visiting during summer tourist season, barred from leaving.

And the 11 million residents of Wuhan, where the world's first COVID cases were found, are all undergoing mandatory coronavirus testing after three locally-transmitted cases were found on Monday, the first in more than a year.

"If anywhere can do it, China can do it."

To date, China's official COVID infection and death tolls are low relative to a majority of countries in the world. Critics have described China's COVID policy as draconian and authoritarian, but it has largely worked to keep the virus from spreading, and China's leaders have taken credit for the success. Experts say China will likely continue with the same strategy moving forward.

"They've been very successful with their 'zero COVID' strategy in the past year," Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, told CBS News. "So that means keeping cases out of the country. And when cases did come in - when outbreaks did occur - they got the number back down to zero as quickly as possible," he said. 

"Because it's the Delta variant, it's going to be more difficult to get under control, but I think if anywhere can do it, China can do it."

Haley Ott contributed to this report.

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