China imposes restrictions on northern part of country due to new outbreak

This isn’t a Wuhan-style lockdown. For now, the restrictions require “preventing outsiders from visiting other neighborhoods and warning residents to stay away from high-risk areas.” But my operating assumption on COVID news from China is that things are always ten times worse than they’re actually telling us.

So maybe this is a prelude to a Wuhan-style lockdown as the larger-than-we-realize new outbreak in the north spins out of control.

Resist the temptation towards schadenfreude, though. This is also a sneak preview of what America faces as we reopen for business.

While the area has dealt with a number of cases resulting from people traveling across the border from Russia, the authorities said the outbreak in Harbin could be traced back to a woman who flew to China from the United States in mid-March, and that it had also spread to nearby Liaoning Province.

Officials tested the woman four times, and each time the result came back negative. Later, after she had given the virus to her neighbor, she was confirmed to have been infected. Thus far, the outbreak has spread to at least 78 people, according to the authorities.

China’s state media said many of the cases came from two hospitals in Harbin, where a patient with the virus was not properly isolated. The disease then spread among health care workers, patients and medical aides who gathered in the hospital’s corridors to talk. Officials closed the hospital for disinfection and issued new rules barring visits to hospitals.

Harbin is home to more than 10 million people. The province in which it’s located is now reporting more than 500 confirmed cases, with 78 infections attributed to a single person. I’m torn between thinking that it’s all too predictable that Chinese authorities would source their new outbreak to foreigners, especially someone traveling from the U.S., and thinking that … that seems possible given what we know about community spread here and in Russia. (Chinese sources told the Times that a single flight from Moscow to Shanghai on April 10 included no fewer than 60 people who tested positive.) The person who supposedly seeded the Harbin outbreak is a 22-year-old grad student who attends NYU. Is it reasonable to believe that she picked up the virus in NYC and brought it back to China? Given the mid-March timeline, sure, according to a new model of community spread in the U.S. from Northeastern University:

By the time New York City confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on March 1, thousands of infections were already silently spreading through the city, a hidden explosion of a disease that many still viewed as a remote threat as the city awaited the first signs of spring…

“Knowing the number of flights coming into New York from Italy, it was like watching a horrible train wreck in slow motion,” said Adriana Heguy, director of the Genome Technology Center at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.

The model estimates more than 10,000 infections in New York as of March 1. We know from genomic analysis that the strain of COVID that’s ravaged New York came from Europe and Trump’s ban on travel from Europe didn’t take effect until March 12. It’s conceivable that a Chinese grad student going to school in New York picked it up here and brought it home with her. Just like it’s also conceivable that the Chinese are lying their asses off by blaming her: According to a Chinese news outlet, the grad student tested negative in a PCR test *and* an antibody test, suggesting she never had the disease. Nonetheless, authorities concluded she was a “silent carrier” who infected a neighbor and got the latest outbreak rolling.

You believe a country that claims there hasn’t been a single death from COVID among a population of more than a billion people since April 14, don’t you?

Relatedly, a new study from the University of Hong Kong finds that the number of confirmed cases in Wuhan during the original outbreak would have been waaaaay higher if China had used the diagnostic criteria then that they’re using now. Initially they were requiring symptoms plus laboratory tests before declaring someone infected; lately they’ve been requiring only symptoms, presumably because testing isn’t as reliable as anyone would like. Result: Instead of 55,000 cases in Wuhan, the true number might have been at least 232,000. And I emphasize “at least.” If you believe that coronavirus has a true infection fatality rate of something like 0.5 percent then the 3,869 deaths in Wuhan should mean something on the order of 775,000 actual infections.

If you’re looking for a more indigenous explanation for China’s second wave, try this story from Reuters. Doctors in Wuhan are baffled that some people who seem to have completely recovered continue to test positive for the virus *months* after they got better. Are they still spreading it? Who knows? Either way, the fact that a second wave may have arrived early for them is grim news for Americans hoping to have a reprieve this summer before gearing up for fall. Singapore, which had great success in containing the first wave of the epidemic, is also dealing with a second wave right now despite their best efforts to keep it at bay — and it’s in the high 80s every day there, if you’re thinking that hot weather will bail us out. WaPo is reporting today that researchers in Philadelphia have built a model of 260 large U.S. counties reopening for business on May 15 with half of the current social distancing measures left in place. Apparently their projections show infections beginning to spike rapidly again in higher-density locations, with even higher peaks than we’re seeing now. Exit quotation: “It comes back really quick, and the peaks are much higher than what you’re seeing right now. It was sobering. I was more optimistic before we did our models.”