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Construction staff work at the site of a medical observation centre, in Shijiangzhuang, northern China's Hebei province, on Jan. 15, 2021.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

A city in northern China is building a 3,000-unit quarantine facility to deal with an anticipated overflow of patients as COVID-19 cases rise ahead of the annual Lunar New Year travel rush.

State media on Friday showed crews levelling earth, pouring concrete and assembling prefabricated rooms in farmland in an outlying part of Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, which has seen the bulk of the new cases.

That recalled scenes from early last year, when China rapidly built field hospitals and turned gymnasiums into isolation centres to cope with a then-spiraling outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019.

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The spike in northern China comes as a World Health Organization team prepares to collect data on the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan, which lies to the south. The international team, most of which arrived Thursday, must undergo two weeks of quarantine before it can begin field visits.

Two of the 15 members were held up in Singapore over their health status. One, a British national, was approved for travel Friday after testing negative for the coronavirus, while the second, a Sudanese citizen from Qatar, again tested positive, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

China has largely contained domestic spread of the virus, but the recent spike has raised concern due to the proximity to the capital, Beijing, and the impending rush of people planning to travel large distances to rejoin their families for the Lunar New Year, the country’s most important traditional festival.

The National Health Commission said Friday that 1,001 patients were under care for the disease, 26 in serious condition. It said 144 new cases were recorded over the past 24 hours. Hebei accounted for 90 of the new cases, while Heilongjiang province farther north reported 43.

Local transmissions also occurred in the southern Guangxi region and the northern province of Shaanxi, illustrating the virus’s ability to move through the vast country of 1.4 billion people despite quarantines, travel restrictions and electronic monitoring.

To date, China has reported 87,988 confirmed cases with 4,635 deaths.

Shijiazhuang has been placed under virtual lockdown, along with the Hebei cities of Xingtai and Langfang, parts of Beijing and other cities in the northeast. That has cut off travel routes, while more than 20 million people have been told to stay home for the coming days.

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China is pushing ahead with inoculations using Chinese-developed vaccines, with more than 9 million people already vaccinated and plans for 50 million to have shots by the middle of next month.

About 4,000 doses are delivered daily to the Chaoyang Planning Art Museum, one of more than 240 sites across Beijing where the first of two doses was being given Friday to high-risk groups, including medical, delivery and transportation workers.

The vaccine, produced by a Beijing subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm, is the first approved for general use in China.

“Being vaccinated is not only to protect myself but also to protect people around me,” Ding Jianguang, a social worker who received her first shot earlier this month, told foreign journalists on a government-organized visit to the site.

Former World Health Organization official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the team in Wuhan, cautioned against expectations of any breakthroughs from the visit, saying that it may take years before any firm conclusions can be made on the virus’s origin.

“China is going to want to come out avoiding blame, perhaps shifting the narrative. They want to come across as being competent and transparent,” he told The Associated Press in a video interview from Hong Kong.

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For its part, WHO wants to project the image that it is “taking, exerting leadership, taking and doing things in a timely way,” he said.

Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people globally since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, possibly in southwest China.

China approved the World Health Organization visit only after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.

The delay, along with the ruling Communist Party’s tight control of information and promotion of theories the pandemic began elsewhere, added to speculation that China is seeking to prevent discoveries that chisel away at its self-proclaimed status as a leader in the battle against the virus.

In Wuhan, street life appeared little different from other Chinese cities where the virus has been largely brought under control. Senior citizens gathered to drink and dance in a riverside park Friday, and residents had praise overall for the government’s response to the crisis.

In other countries, “people go out arbitrarily, and they hang out and gather together, so it’s especially easy for them to be infected,” Xiang Nan said. “I hope they can stay home, and reduce travelling. … Don’t let the pandemic spread further any more.”

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