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A makeshift hospital is being built in Heilongjiang province near the border with Russia. A cluster of Covid-19 cases has emerged in the province. Photo: Reuters

Coronavirus cluster in China stretches from dinner party to hospital to charges of breaching contagion laws

  • Patients in hospital test positive after chain of infection, bringing group total to at least 17 cases
  • Heilongjiang case highlights the perils of easing social distance measures before time
China has again reported a double-digit cluster infection of Covid-19, highlighting the risk of gatherings as people ease up on social distancing measures, Chinese authorities warned.
On Monday, northeastern Heilongjiang province reported 10 local infections, seven confirmed with symptoms and three without symptoms. All of them could be traced back to one asymptomatic carrier, resulting in a cluster of at least 17 infections.

It has been the first big local cluster since the Chinese government announced last month that Covid-19 was under control on the mainland, and the largest reported daily local increase since March 11. For a couple of weeks China’s newly reported infections have been mainly imported cases.

However, this cluster proves the risk of another local outbreak once social distancing is lifted.

Mi Feng, spokesman for the National Health Commission, said on Tuesday that given the recurrence of local infections in recent days, the public should maintain self-protection and community precautions.

“The prevention and control measures must be implemented by every household and every individual,” he said.

Medical experts also told the public to keep wearing masks.
A resident wears a face mask in Suifenhe, a city of Heilongjiang province on the border with Russia. Photo: Reuters

In the Heilongjiang cluster, transmission between friends who attended a dinner party together played an important role. The authorities have warned against such gatherings, and have insisted that social distancing must be observed even though many people have returned to work.

“Dinner with friends resulted in a whole family being infected, and then more strangers. It is not worth it,” the health commissioner in Heilongjiang said.

Contact tracing identified a 33-year-old woman, with the surname Cao, as the first patient of this cluster in Harbin. One of her neighbours in the same residential building returned from the United States on March 19. He tested positive last week for the coronavirus antibody, meaning he had previously been infected but recovered.

The health authorities of Heilongjiang said Cao probably contracted the virus from this neighbour when he was still infectious.

Although Cao did not show symptoms, she transmitted the virus to her mother and boyfriend, neither of whom developed any symptoms either. But Cao’s mother Wang, 54, spread the virus to her boyfriend Guo, 54, who became ill and was diagnosed last week as a confirmed case.

Two of Guo’s friends, a pair of brothers surnamed Chen, had invited Guo and Wang for a home dinner on March 29. Also present was the brothers’ father, aged 87. All three of the Chens were confirmed last week as Covid-19 cases.

In addition, another Chen family member, as well as nine other people – patients and their family members – who had stayed in the same hospital ward with the 87-year-old Chen father, also returned positive test results over the weekend.

Local police said Guo and Wang had tried to conceal their contact and history in the epidemiological investigation, and would be charged for breaching laws on contagious disease control.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Double-digit cluster found in Heilongjiang province