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Asia Today: Chinese city tests millions amid new outbreak

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A maintenance worker wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walks outside of an office complex in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. China is concentrating its pandemic prevention efforts in the rural areas as officials urge people to not travel home for the annual Lunar New Year festival, as the country combats its most serious latest outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic originally broke out in Wuhan a year ago. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING – Millions of people lined in freezing temperatures Wednesday to receive a second round of coronavirus tests in a city south of Beijing that is at the heart of China’s most serious recent outbreak of COVID-19.

The National Health Commission announced Wednesday that another 90 confirmed cases have been reported in Hebei province, whose capital Shijiazhuang has accounted for the vast majority of recent cases. Another 16 cases were reported in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and one in the northern province of Shanxi.

China, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, had largely contained domestic spread of the virus and the new outbreaks come even as authorities push to vaccinate 50 million people by the middle of February.

The Hebei outbreak is of particular concern because of the province’s close proximity to Beijing. Travel to and from three cities, Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang, has been suspended and residents of some communities have been told to stay home for the next week.

All of Shijiazhuang’s roughly 10 million people have been ordered to undergo a second round of testing as authorities seek to isolate the sources of the outbreak. Some of the infections have been tentatively linked to wedding gatherings.

Similar measures have been ordered around the country, particularly in Wuhan, where 11 million people were placed under lockdown for 76 days last winter during the early days of the pandemic.

The increased numbers come as World Health Organization experts prepare to fly on Thursday to Wuhan at the start of their investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

China has rejected calls for an independent investigation while strictly controlling all research into the origins of the coronavirus and promoting fringe theories that the virus may have actually been brought to China from outside.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Indonesian President Joko Widodo received the first shot of a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday after Indonesia approved it for emergency use. The world’s fourth most populated country plans to vaccinate millions of health care workers and other other high-risk groups in the coming months. Top military, police and medical officials also were vaccinated, as well as the secretary of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the clerical body that last week had ruled the vaccine was halal and could be taken by Muslims. Health officials are still working to secure access to enough doses to protect around 67% of the population. Authorities have conceded the effort might be marred by infrastructure issues like keeping the vaccines cold enough to maintain their effectiveness.

— Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency to seven more prefectures Wednesday, affecting more than half the population amid a surge in infections across the country. Prime Minister Yoshide Suga’s announcement comes less than a week after he declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three nearby prefectures. The new declaration adds seven other prefectures in western and central Japan. The government is asking bars and restaurants in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures to close by 8 p.m., employers to have 70% of their staff work from home and residents in the affected areas avoid going out for nonessential purposes. Suga has been criticized as being to slow to act as the country’s coronavirus infections and deaths roughly doubled over the past month to about 300,000 and 4,100 respectively. Both states of emergency were declared only after local leaders pleaded with him to do so. Experts have warned that even the states of emergency, which are non-binding and largely rely on voluntary cooperation, may be insufficient to significantly slow infections.

— A South Korean court has acquitted a religious sect leader of charges that he deliberately disrupted the government’s anti-virus response after thousands of his worshippers were infected with the coronavirus. The court, however, found Lee Man-hee guilty of embezzling church funds and organizing unauthorized worship services. His three-year prison term will be suspended for four years. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus denied any wrongdoing by Lee and confirmed plans to appeal. Prosecutors had accused Lee and his church of violating the country’s infectious disease law by deliberately hiding some of the church’s membership and under-reporting its gatherings. But the court said it was unclear whether the church’s failure to provide a full list of its membership was a crime.