China has reported its first Covid-19 death since May as its northern province of Hebei battles an outbreak that also prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents of high-risk areas to a quarantine facility. Hebei’s health commission on Thursday reported 81 new cases, 75 of them in its provincial capital Shijiazhuang, taking the total for its current outbreak to 463 known active infections. About 5,500 people from three villages in Shijiazhuang’s Gaocheng district, which has been classed as high-risk, were evacuated to a quarantine site at a vocational college on Wednesday, while a second round of mass testing began. Nationwide, 138 new infections were recorded – 14 of them imported and the rest local transmissions – taking China’s total infection tally to almost 88,000, with more than 4,600 deaths. Shijiazhuang, home to 11 million people, has been under lockdown since Wednesday last week , as has the neighbouring city of Xingtai. George Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the Hebei lockdowns were smaller in scale compared with the one imposed almost a year ago in Wuhan, the first epicentre of the outbreak. “At the moment, we have a rural area outbreak. We’re doing the suppression again,” Gao said in Shijiazhuang during an online international Covid-19 symposium on Wednesday. “We try not to use the same scale of lockdown we did for Wuhan. But we’ve learned a lot. “We [will] try a small-scale lockdown [to] suppress [the virus], [like what] people call whack-a-mole.” Health authorities have classified areas of the country using three categories, according to their level of transmission risk, and imposed stricter measures on communities in high-risk areas to try to prevent the outbreak spreading to other areas, such as the national capital Beijing , 300km (186 miles) northeast of Shijiazhuang. Meanwhile, the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, bordering Russia, reported 43 new locally transmitted cases after declaring a state of emergency . Frozen food sellers in the province are now required to label imported cold-chain products with QR codes that customers can scan to check their inspection certificate and Covid-19 test result. Products without such a tracking service will be banned in markets from Friday. A member of the World Health Organization team visiting China to investigate Covid-19’s origins said scientists should look into whether the virus could remain infectious after long-distance shipping. “Given what we know about the virus, it is difficult for me to understand how the virus would survive cold storage, certainly for a prolonged period of time on the outside of packages,” Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus Medical Centre’s viroscience department, told Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. How do vaccines and immune systems work? Could a coronavirus vaccine fail? Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s top respiratory disease experts, has also previously called for further study of so-called environmental spread, including via cold-chain packaging. China has imposed measures such as testing for virus traces on imported frozen products and disinfecting all overseas shipments of cold-chain products, which Chinese authorities have suggested may be responsible for the spread of the virus – despite the lack of clear evidence. Health authorities have linked some of the outbreaks to handling of contaminated packaging of imported seafood products, including a June outbreak at a wet market in Beijing and another in Qingdao in eastern China in October. Authorities have suspended food imports from several foreign suppliers whose product packaging tested positive for Covid-19, and introduced measures to protect workers handling imported frozen food products.