Saturday, March 12, 2022

On the Current Covid Outbreak in Shanghai

A covid-testing site in Shanghai, China. Image source.

I live in Shanghai, China. There is a covid-19 outbreak here- the worst one that Shanghai has ever had. So I want to blog about it and tell you all what it's like.

First of all, here are a few English-language news articles about it, though as I've said before, I am giving all the side-eye to western media reporting on China's handling of the pandemic:

China’s zero-Covid policy tested as Shanghai’s worst outbreak traced to quarantine hotel 

China Shuts Shanghai Schools, Adds Hospitals on Covid Return 

And Sixth Tone, a Chinese news source which doesn't have the "clutch my pearls over how strict China's lockdowns are" attitude that western news has:

China Sees Over 1,000 COVID-19 Cases for First Time Since 2020

Okay so let me tell you how it is here.

To set the scene: Here in Shanghai, we are used to having 0 covid cases. Every single day, the city of Shanghai publishes on their WeChat account (Chinese social media app) the stats on how many local covid cases were found in Shanghai, and how many imported. The number for "local" is 0, the overwhelming majority of the time. If it's not 0, if it's, say, 1, then people sit up and take notice because OH NOOOO we are having an OUTBREAK. (And the number for "imported" is typically somewhere around 30 per day. These are people who traveled in from abroad to enter mainland China- and everyone who enters China is tested for covid and required to spend 14-21 days in quarantine. So the "imported" cases don't affect the rest of Shanghai, because international travelers are not allowed to wander around in society until after their quarantine is done.)

So, yeah, occasionally we have an "outbreak" which is, say, 1 case. Maybe, say, 5 or 10 at the most. The places where those infected people visited will all be temporarily closed to be disinfected, their close contacts will all get tested (and maybe also quarantined, depending on how close of a contact they are), and the apartment complexes where they live will be marked as "medium-risk" and everyone living there has to get tested and stay home in quarantine for 14 days. And for the rest of us in Shanghai, well we just continue to go about our lives like normal, and then 14 days later, hooray, everywhere is "low-risk" and that's the end of that outbreak.

That's basically what it's been like in Shanghai throughout the whole pandemic. Typically 0 local cases, and then every month or so there will be like, an outbreak of a few local cases, which immediately get quarantined, and life is pretty normal. Unless you happen to get caught in the quarantine and then you're stuck there for 14 days.

This time is different.

The current outbreak started on March 1 (that's what the Sixth Tone article says, but honestly I am not sure on the exact date because there was also 1 local asymptomatic covid case reported in Shanghai on February 27, and 3 local asymptomatic on February 28- anyway, sometime around then). I guess in the first few days, people didn't pay much attention to it- just have a vague awareness that somewhere in the city there's a "medium-risk" area, and check how close it is to where you live, but other than that, life continued as normal.

Then on Sunday, March 6, I heard from one friend, let's call her Jessica, that everyone at her job was required to go to the office that day and quarantine there for 48 hours. Sleeping there and all that. They weren't told the exact reason why- like what specific level of "close contact" are we talking, was it like "someone at the office is a close contact of a positive case" or "someone at the office is a contact of a contact of a positive case" or "someone in the office lives in the same apartment complex as a positive case"??? They weren't told details, just told that they all had to come in and quarantine at their job for 48 hours.

Jessica has a small baby, and she found out that pregnant and breastfeeding women aren't required to do the office quarantine- she was allowed to quarantine at home, fortunately. The weird thing was, nobody gave specific directions to her on what exactly she needed to do- like, would someone come to her home and covid-test her? Does it mean her whole family also has to stay at home and quarantine too? I think it was maybe 24 hours later when she heard from an official source about what she needed to do, and the exact time her quarantine would end. (Yes, it was 48 hours.) She actually went out herself to a testing location to do the covid test on March 7 (so yes, during the 48 hours)- it wasn't the pandemic workers coming to her home to test. We assume the authorities didn't judge her to be at risk of actually having covid, so that's why they didn't give her much oversight about it.

Also on Sunday, March 6, I was out with friends at an event where about 90% of people weren't wearing masks. I was not wearing a mask either. One of my friends, let's call her Wendy, got a text message while she was there with us; it said her entire apartment complex was being covid-tested, and she should go home and do the covid test. We still didn't put on masks or anything after she told us, and she did stay till the end of the event. (Hmm, maybe people in Shanghai are way too casual about masks since we're used to having 0 covid cases...)

I texted Wendy on WeChat the next day to ask what happened, and she said after they all got tested, they were allowed to leave. They were not in lockdown. (She thought maybe they were just testing everyone in that area because one of the confirmed cases was about 2 km from where she lives.) But she heard some nearby apartment complexes were locked down that day (March 7), so some people were saying it's better to not go out anyway, just in case your apartment complex ends up getting locked down too.

All right, so, a few days pass, and here are the stats for local cases in Shanghai:

Graph showing "confirmed" (ie symptomatic) and "asymptomatic" cases in Shanghai, March 1-10, 2022. Image source.

(About 90% are asymptomatic, because most people are vaccinated. But even if you don't have symptoms, it is still possible to infect other people. That's the problem...)

I remember thinking, maybe on Tuesday or Wednesday (March 8 or 9), "umm, these numbers are way way bigger than normal, but people aren't really reacting to it, this could be a problem." Some people at my job had decided to work from home because of it, but the rest of us were just there at the office, not wearing masks.

On Wednesday (March 9), HR sent an email that said we should all try to work from home if possible. My manager called our department into a meeting (maybe about 10 people), and, uh, nobody wore masks at this meeting- to tell us all that we should discuss with our project managers about what needs to be coordinated in order for us all to work from home.

(I just mention the lack of masks several times in this post to show kind of what the current feeling is in Shanghai about masks. I mean, everyone is tired of masks. Masks are required on the subway, and that's the place where it's really really enforced. Also when I take a taxi or when I'm in a public place like a mall, I wear a mask- but maybe 25% of people don't. Hanging out in public with a group of friends, I don't. And at work I don't.)

So Thursday (March 10) I worked from home. 

And, also, Thursday was the day that everything changed.

On Thursday, I heard from Jessica that her apartment complex was locked down. The security guards didn't give any information on how long it would be, but Jessica assumed it would probably be a whole 14 days. They're still able to get food deliveries- but have to walk all the way out to the complex gate to get them.

Also on Thursday, I heard from a friend who works as a teacher, let's call them Casey, that they were stuck at school, not allowed to leave, and not given any information on how long it would be. All the students and staff were required to stay there. After a few hours, they found out that they would have to stay the whole night.

Also on Thursday, I saw a lot of posts on WeChat from pet boarding companies and vets about what to do with your pets if you are quarantined. People are concerned about this, because we have heard of a few stories from other Chinese cities where a pet was killed by the quarantine workers. I feel like that wouldn't happen in Shanghai, but people are worried. Basically the advice I saw posted was that if you're quarantined at home, your pet will just be at home with you, which is fine, and you can go outside to walk your dog. And if you're quarantined at some centralized place instead, call one of the pet boarding services and have them come pick up your pets and keep them for you. Like, hopefully there won't be any issue with this, but good to have a plan in place.

And suddenly lots of events being cancelled.

Thursday night, I hear from Wendy again- her apartment complex is in lockdown for 48 hours.

A common theme on WeChat on Thursday night is that people aren't being given information about what is going on. Questions like: If we're in lockdown, how do we get food? If we're stuck at school, where are we supposed to sleep? How long do we have to stay here? Seems like the pandemic control authorities weren't as organized as they should be.

Thursday is when we realized, it's never been this bad in Shanghai before. It's never been like this. We've never had lockdowns like this.

Stats for Thursday, March 10: 11 confirmed cases, 64 asymptomatic cases.

Friday morning, I wake up and check all my WeChat groups. There are photos of students who had to sleep at their schools. All wearing masks and trying to sleep at their desks. Poor kids.

On Friday, my husband and I worked from home, and we sent our son to daycare like normal. There weren't any lockdowns around the area where we live, and the kids at the daycare mostly live within walking distance, so we figured that was fine.

All throughout the day, there are discussions on WeChat about who's in a lockdown and who's required to get tested and so on and so on. Lots of parents saying "the school sent us a notification that all the students are required to get tested."

Friday afternoon, the city of Shanghai posts on their WeChat to say they did some genetic analysis and found the source of the current outbreak: it's one of the quarantine hotels that is used to quarantine people when they enter China. Apparently they didn't follow all the isolation and cleaning protocols, and there was a leak.

Later on Friday afternoon, the city of Shanghai posts an announcement that all schools will be closed, starting on March 12. And that also includes our son's daycare.

I talked with Casey on Friday night- they said they were allowed to leave, but would have to do 12 days of "home observation" which means you stay at home but you're at least allowed to go downstairs to get your food deliveries or whatever, so it's not a real quarantine. But they were worried that if they went home, their 2 roommates would also be required to stay at home. They wondered about going to a hotel instead- they weren't really given clear guidelines on where they would or wouldn't be allowed to go. Eventually the roommates said "just come home anyway." The management of their apartment complex was notified, and the management then decided that since their apartment had 2 bathrooms, Casey can just stay in their bedroom and use the one bathroom, and the roommates can use the other one, so then the roommates are allowed to go wherever and don't have any quarantine restrictions.

Friday night, the "Health Cloud" app that people use to input their data for covid tests crashed. Some people said that they weren't able to get tested because of that. Some people said that the quarantine workers started writing people's information down on paper so they could get tested anyway.

Friday night, I see an article on WeChat that says Shanghai officials have announced that the rumors about the whole city being locked down are NOT TRUE. Uhhh... I personally hadn't heard that rumor, but uh okay, good.

Hearing more anecdotes about things being not as organized as they should be- I heard about a building that was already locked down for 24 or 48 hours, but nobody had even come to covid-test the residents of the building yet.

Stats for Friday, March 11: 5 confirmed cases, 78 asymptomatic.

Saturday morning, I saw a post in a WeChat group about how the line at one of the popular covid-testing sites is going all the way down the block. The covid-testing site's WeChat said the wait time on Friday had been about 2 hours.

Also, I hear from Wendy that their 48-hour quarantine has been extended to 72 hours because they weren't able to get tested last night when the app crashed.

And another friend, Bob, said he went to get his food delivery at lunchtime today (Saturday) and found the gate of his apartment complex was barricaded and they are locked down. (But good news is, they still get food deliveries just fine.) No information on how long their lockdown will be.

Sooooo that's the current status. I personally am not affected that much- just have to work from home, and my son won't be able to go to daycare the next few days, but we aren't locked down. We can still go out. We could even probably find some restaurants within walking distance that are still open for indoor dining. (We aren't going to, though, we're going to stay home.) Food deliveries are taking longer than normal, though.

So, to be clear: I'm not in lockdown, and I'm not required to get covid-tested.

I do have concerns about all the problems with people not being given information on what's happening. It's because the pandemic control people are trying to move so fast to stay ahead of this, that the security guards and covid-testers who are actually doing the work on the ground haven't been given the information either. Come on, be more organized than this. 

And the backlog of covid tests, the delays in getting results, the "Health Cloud" app crashing, yeah the pandemic control system seems a little overwhelmed right now, and that could have been done better. 

Also it is BEYOND ME why there isn't some kind of official plan about how to care for pets when the owners are quarantined. Like, give people some reassurance that the powers-that-be recognize that it's wrong to kill someone's pet. Like what on earth.

Actually, I'm kind of surprised, because I've always thought the city of Shanghai was doing a really good job controlling the pandemic. Seemed really organized. For 2 years we've had quarantine hotels here, receiving covid-positive international travelers every single day, and things have been fine. I think overall, Shanghai has been doing a good job, but somehow this outbreak got big faster than they expected.

If you've read my blog, you know I'm pretty positive about China's overall handling of the pandemic, because it works and it has prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths. To some extent I feel like "I shouldn't criticize anything, because the alternative is to do what the US did, where hundreds of thousands of people died." But that's ridiculous. Let's not compare with the US, let's have a higher standard than that.

Overall, I am cautiously optimistic that we've already passed the worst part of this outbreak, and things are under control now. Maybe the lockdowns that exist now have managed to include 100% of the people in Shanghai who have covid. Then we just wait the 2 weeks and it peters out.

Anyway, that's our situation here in Shanghai. I plan to post another update in the next few days when we see how things go.

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Follow-up post: I'm in Lockdown

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Related: 

Wow, the Anti-China Bias in Western News Media

Oh, and it is STILL true that I Don't Know Anyone in China Who Has Had Covid

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