Mainland China reported its first COVID-19 deaths in more than a year on Saturday, according to a post on the National Health Commission's website that said two people died in the northeastern region of Jilin.
The striking news - China reported only two COVID deaths for all of 2021, the last on Jan. 25 - comes as the country battles its most widespread outbreak to date, maintaining its zero-tolerance approach using "dynamic clearance" – short shutdowns and rapid testing where cases are found.
Jilin, bordering North Korea and Russia, is at the heart of the current wave, with case numbers make up over two thirds of total domestic infections.
The latest deaths raised the total number of victims reported since the pandemic began to 4,638. The country reported 2,228 new confirmed coronavirus cases on March 18, compared with 2,416 a day earlier.
Of the new cases, 2,157 were locally transmitted, compared with 2,388 a day earlier, with 78% appearing in Jilin and others found in the southeastern province of Fujian and the southern province of Guangdong among others.
The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, stood at 1,823 compared with 1,904 a day earlier. As of March 18, mainland China had confirmed 128,462 cases overall.
President Xi Jinping said on Thursday that China would stick with its zero-Covid strategy, while also allowing for a more "targeted" approach.
While in the past full lockdowns could be expected for any outbreak, authorities around the country have responded with varying measures to the latest viral spread.