SHANGHAI – It’s the end of another long day for Jin Yingxiong. At 9 p.m. April 9, he’s on a bus heading for a hotel in Jiaxing, about 100 kilometers from urban Shanghai in Zhejiang province. Jin is one of a team of 40 medical workers who have been helping the megacity conduct COVID-19 tests. Most of his colleagues are sound asleep.
As Shanghai battles its worst ever coronavirus outbreak, around 38,000 medical workers from around the country have arrived to help, working either in quarantine centers or roaming testing teams. The city is building more quarantine centers to cope with surging infections and citywide nucleic acid tests continue, and more workers like them are coming.
It’s Jin’s first time doing any kind of medical tests. He’s a pharmacist in a hospital in Zhejiang, where he’s worked for nearly a decade.
Jin misses his 4-year-old child and wife and video called them on days when he didn’t have assignments. “They’re all worried about me. I’ve been away from home for nearly a month now,” Jin, who insisted on using a pseudonym for privacy concerns, told Sixth Tone.
The 31-year-old was summoned to Jiaxing on March 14, when a wave of COVID-19 infections in Shanghai started to spread to neighboring cities. Although the prefecture of 5.5 million had recorded just eight cases over two days, it went on high alert and began district-wide tests immediately.
Zhejiang has responded to COVID-19 very cautiously since 2020. Jin’s hometown, a smaller city, went into full lockdown on March 14, when local authorities detected 10 COVID-19 cases.
“The citywide lockdown was announced shortly after the finding, and the situation was soon under control,” Jin recalled. The lockdown was lifted a week later. “I personally prefer stricter controls at the very beginning.”
Jiaxing was a manageable challenge, Jin said. “We didn’t enter the locked-down areas. We received adequate training, and the workload was acceptable.”
In Zhejiang, Jin had help from dozens of young community workers and volunteers. “Most are in their early 30s like me. They’re quick in learning and reactions,” Jin said.
When Jin’s team finished their work, they were asked to stay put. They would use Jiaxing as a base for trips to neighboring Shanghai.
A worker in hazmat suit rides a rental bike in Shanghai, April 12, 2022. Gao Zheng for Sixth Tone
The megacity started its two-phase citywide lockdown on March 28, originally intended to last four days on each side of the river. But the lockdowns, and near-daily rounds of testing, continue as Shanghai reports tens of thousands of new infections every single day.
Since April 7, Jin has traveled to Shanghai six times to conduct nucleic acid tests. “I had been closely following developments in Shanghai, and I was worried about my own health,” he said.
Since Shanghai is struggling to find space to quarantine its infected residents and their close contacts, medical workers who come from Zhejiang all return to hotels in the province after finishing the work.
Each time, Jin and his teammates spent more than 10 hours traveling and working. Despite the long hours, they were ordered by the provincial health authority not to drink, eat, or use the toilet throughout the day.
“It’s the best way to protect us from infection,” Jin told Sixth Tone. “Even if it weren’t compulsory, none of us wants to take the risk. We’d rather stay hungry and thirsty for the day.”
Medical staff from Zhejiang administer COVID-19 tests in Shanghai, April 2022. Courtesy of the interviewee
Many of his co-workers put on adult diapers before setting out for the mission. Jin chose not to, as he found it uncomfortable. “I didn’t eat or drink a lot in the morning. I was confident I wouldn’t need to use the toilet.”
On his first trip on April 7, Jin was sent to an old apartment compound in Changning District, one of the least affected areas in Shanghai. To his surprise, the compound, home to 800-plus people, had only five volunteers organizing the tests.
“In Zhejiang, there are many more volunteers, who are young and energetic. The volunteers and community workers, who received us in Shanghai, are mostly in their 50s. They looked tired,” he recalled.
A major source of trouble was QR codes. Before testing, residents needed to load an ID code on their phones. The phoneless could register with ID cards, but it was a complicated process.
A medical worker scans a QR code in Shanghai, April 16, 2022. IC
“I asked them why they didn’t look for more volunteers. They said they didn’t dare to because they couldn’t provide more hazmat suits and would worry about their health.”
Volunteers in Shanghai compounds are not only responsible for organizing residents for nucleic acid tests, but also for bringing residents daily supplies and antigen test kits. “The job is very physically demanding. I can understand why they’re so exhausted,” Jin said.
Across Shanghai, volunteers and neighborhood committees are facing an enormous challenge.
In Shanghai, local issues are handled by neighborhood committees. A typical neighborhood committee has only a handful of staff, and in a compound in which thousands of people live, must take care of everything from garbage sorting, parking space arrangement, looking after seniors, and addressing conflicts.
They do have helpers: each building usually has a designated representative, typically a retiree who enjoys helping others and socializing.
Earlier this month, a neighborhood committee Party secretary burst into tears when reached by a resident, inquiring why her COVID-19-positive neighbors were not transferred in time. Another grassroots official in the Pudong New Area wrote an open letter to the 4,000-plus residents living in the compound, detailing how helpless he has been in this crisis. “I have been living in the neighborhood committee office since March 11. Every night I slept for two or three hours,” wrote the Party secretary, surnamed Wu.
In the compound where he works, dozens of positive cases have been reported since March. “I failed to reply to residents’ questions because I don’t have the answers. As a grassroots official, I don’t have access to firsthand or essential information. My superiors told me my priority is to calm down the residents,” he wrote.
When Sixth Tone called Wu’s office last week, the official was busy coordinating with police officers. “The secretary didn’t stop working after publicizing the letter,” an officer from the neighborhood committee told Sixth Tone. “Many residents called the police to demand the immediate transfer of their COVID-positive neighbors. We could do nothing if the disease control authority didn’t make the arrangements.”
A medical worker from Jiangsu province draws a test sample from a girl in Shanghai, April 2022. Ni Dandan/Sixth Tone
On their first assignment to Shanghai, Jin and his co-workers were sent to dozens of different compounds and had very different experiences. Some said they were moved by grateful residents, who kept saying thank you, while other medical workers complained of an insufficient supply of essential materials like medical gloves. Despite the challenges, they managed to test on average 400 residents each that day.
On April 9, Jin arrived for the second time around noon for another round of citywide nucleic acid tests. Because hazmat suits are only effective for about six hours, the provincial health authority set a deadline: All Zhejiang medical teams should leave the test sites before 6 p.m.
Jin finished testing 460 residents at 5:45 p.m. on the day and returned to the bus. “The tests went much smoother than the first time I worked here,” he said.
Shanghai updated its nucleic test system on that day, creating a single QR code that stays valid for a month, and streamlining offline registration. Previously residents had to register online each time before a nucleic acid test.
The new system also made things easier for the medical workers. Previously, they had to paste a sticker with a QR code onto each test tube on site. Now, the stickers have already been prepared on the tubes for them.
“This procedure saves us time and also ensures the stickers won’t easily fall off the tubes. When medical workers pasted them on site, we’d sometimes lose the stickers,” Jin said. “That meant some people didn’t get their test results.”
A medical worker from Zhejiang province checks a sample in Shanghai, April 16, 2022. IC
At 10:30 p.m., 14 hours after breakfast, Jin finally got his second meal of the day after a thorough disinfection at the Jiaxing hotel. Jin had lost five kilograms in the past month.
In addition to the strict no food or water requirement during their work, the medical team receives a nucleic test every day. “This, to a maximum degree, guarantees our health.”
Given all the protective measures, once they finish their tasks, the medical workers will only be required to quarantine in a hotel for seven days before they can return home. So far, none of his teammates have been infected, Jin said.
It’s his sixth trip to Shanghai for the tests on Tuesday. Dressed in hazmat suit, Jin rode a bicycle on an almost empty street, heading for the neighborhood he’s going to help test. He filmed the scenes on the street: a truck is parked by the road, a few delivery men rushing by on scooters.
“I’m hoping to see the turning point in Shanghai soon,” Jin said. “The day will come. It’s only a matter of time. I just hope it can arrive earlier.”
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: Medical staff from Zhejiang province administer a COVID-19 test to a Shanghai resident, April 16, 2022. IC)