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First virus deaths in China since Jan ’21

China’s health authorities have reported two COVID-19 deaths, the first since January 2021, as the country battles its worst outbreak in two years driven by a surge in the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The deaths, both in northeastern Jilin province, bring the country’s death toll to 4,638.

Both fatalities occurred in elderly patients and were the result of underlying conditions, National Health Commission spokeswoman Jiao Yahui told a news briefing on Saturday.

One of them had not been vaccinated, she said.

The majority of new 2157 community transmissions came from Jilin. The province has imposed a travel ban, with people needing permission from police to travel across borders.

Nationwide, China has reported more than 29,000 confirmed cases since the beginning of March.

It has pressed on with its tried-and-true policy of lockdowns and mass testing of millions of people as part of a successful, if burdensome, “zero-COVID” strategy since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in 2019.

The country has seen relatively few infections so far because clusters are tamped down as quickly as they are discovered. The strategy has received popular support and prevented the large numbers of deaths seen in other countries, many of which have started to forgo any kind of social distancing measures.

Faced with the worst surge since late 2019, officials have vowed to double down on the zero-tolerance strategy to contain multiple outbreaks across China.

However, leader Xi Jinping acknowledged for the first time the burden of the measures on Thursday, saying that China should seek “maximum effect” with “minimum cost” in controlling the virus.

Hong Kong, which is facing its worst surge of the pandemic, recorded 16,583 new cases on Saturday. The city’s total infections exceeded one million on Friday, and its number of deaths has already surpassed mainland China’s.

Mainland China’s data is counted separately from Hong Kong, a special administrative region.

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