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2020-06-19 11:16:24

The latest coronavirus cluster in Beijing has strained the city’s testing capacity, as authorities try to aggressively track and trace potential virus carriers, financial media outlet Caixin reported Thursday.

Beijing’s city government said it is conducting mass COVID-19 tests in mid- and high-risk neighborhoods, even using big data to trace 355,000 individuals with travel histories to the Xinfadi farmers market. Authorities were on high alert after 46 people connected to the market tested positive for the virus Saturday, prompting them to expand the scale of testing citywide.

Estimates from Beijing authorities published Wednesday suggest the city will collect throat and nasal swabs from 400,000 people daily, though authorized facilities can only process 90,000 tests a day. The gap between sampling and testing capacity is resulting in dayslong delays for results, with one company admitting that their 24-hour testing process now takes up to three days.

Currently, Beijing has authorized 98 institutes, including public hospitals and private companies, to conduct COVID-19 tests. However, testing at many facilities has far exceeded their capacity, and appointments at several hospitals have been pushed back by at least a month, Southern Weekly reported.

Posts on social media show medics and testers working long hours amid the summer heat to keep up with the mass testing drive.

Genome-sequencing giant BGI Group told Southern Weekly that it transported more testing equipment — including genome-sequencing devices and biosafety containers — from the central Chinese city of Wuhan to Beijing on Tuesday to keep up with the demand. Now, BGI is able to process 10,000 samples per day compared with roughly 1,000 before.

To contain the outbreak, Beijing announced Tuesday that all citizens must present a negative nucleic acid test in order to leave the city. But with COVID-19 tests prioritized for those being compelled to take them, as well as people working at farmers markets and restaurants, other individuals are having a hard time getting screened.

Chen Yongpeng, who is in Beijing for business, said booking a COVID-19 test has been an ordeal.

“It’s either impossible to get through or the phones are off,” he told Sixth Tone, referring to the contact number for Beijing’s 98 authorized testing locations.

Chen said he tried to schedule an appointment more than 10 times but eventually turned to a third-party agency that sent his sample to a testing institute for 260 yuan ($37). The service assigned him a sampling site in Chaoyang District, more than 30 kilometers from where he’s staying in Daxing.

“There is no other way,” said Chen, who is scheduled to fly out of the capital on Tuesday.

An official who administers residential committees in Beijing’s Fengtai District told domestic media that personal appointments for nucleic acid testing are currently “overcrowded everywhere.”

“People who have visited Xinfadi and those working in the service industry, like in restaurants and supermarkets, (need) to get tested first,” the official was quoted as saying. “Individual appointments have to wait.”

Sixth Tone’s phone calls to multiple testing institutes didn’t go through on Friday. A Beijing government spokesperson said Thursday that the city is “improving testing capacity.”

As of Friday, Beijing had reported 183 confirmed coronavirus cases since the latest outbreak was first detected on June 11, and the city is currently under strict restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the cluster has been contained, and that “new infections will be sporadic.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: People receive COVID-19 nucleic acid tests at a park in Beijing, June 17, 2 020. Jia Tianyong/CNS/People Visual)