WUHAN • In Wuhan, medical workers armed with coronavirus test swabs scoured construction sites and markets to look for itinerant workers while others made house calls to reach older residents and people with disabilities. Officials aired announcements over loudspeakers urging people to sign up for their own good.
These are the front lines of an unprecedented campaign to screen virtually all 11 million people in the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected. Now, almost two weeks after the effort started on May 14, the government is getting close to reaching its goal, with 6.5 million tested so far.
“Our community was checked in a day,” said Ms Wang Yuan, a 32-year-old resident who lined up under red tents near her home and had her throat swabbed by medical workers wearing protective suits and face shields.
She expected to get her results within two to four days.
While other governments have struggled to provide testing for their populations on a broad scale, China has embarked on a citywide campaign to prevent a resurgence of infections at all costs.
It has succeeded, according to residents and Chinese news reports, by mobilising thousands of medical and other workers and spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
The government, which is covering the cost of testing, sees the drive as key to restoring the public confidence that is needed to help restart the economy and return to some level of normalcy.
But public health experts disagree on whether such a resource-intensive push is necessary when infections are low.
The drive has largely confirmed that Wuhan has tamed the outbreak. By Tuesday, only about 200 cases were found, mostly people who had no symptoms, although samples were still being processed. The city has ramped up its testing capacity over the past two weeks. Laboratories went from processing around 46,000 tests a day, on average, before the drive, to as many as 1.47 million tests last Friday.
By comparison, the state of New York in the United States has tested 1.7 million people since March 4, according to The Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project.
The Wuhan government is determined to leave no person behind. In at least one neighbourhood, officials warned in public announcements that residents who refused to get tested would see their government-issued health codes downgraded, potentially limiting a person’s right to work and travel.
Number of people in Wuhan.
Number of people tested so far.
Number of tests that laboratories can process a day.
“If you do not participate, you will not be allowed to enter supermarkets or banks,” the announcement said. “Your green code will turn yellow, which will cause inconvenience to your life.”
But with confirmed, symptomatic infections remaining in the single digits in Wuhan, some experts said the scale of the campaign was excessive.
Dr Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said it would be impossible to accurately test that many people in such a short period.
Under ordinary circumstances, nucleic acid tests for the coronavirus are difficult to administer in hospitals, even with well-trained nurses, Dr Jin said.
Trying to conduct so many of them, in quick succession, in makeshift testing tents, could produce many erroneous results.
For a city of around 10 million, Dr Jin said, a sample of about 100,000 people would have been more than sufficient.
Proponents of the testing push say it would give health officials a more comprehensive view of the situation in Wuhan, including of people who are asymptomatic.
The campaign was initiated after the authorities discovered six infections following a month of no new confirmed cases.