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HONG KONG — The U.S. State Department on Monday ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government workers from the consulate in Shanghai, citing a coronavirus outbreak that has had the city on lockdown for weeks.

The order is a change from last week, when the department authorized non-emergency employees to leave on a voluntary basis amid the shutdown in the city of 26 million, China’s biggest since the virus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

“It is best for our employees and their families to be reduced in number and our operations to be scaled down as we deal with the changing circumstances on the ground,” a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson said employees and their family members would leave on commercial flights.  

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Residents in Shanghai, China’s financial center and most populous city, have complained of difficulties obtaining food and medical care under Covid restrictions that bar people from leaving their residential compounds and sometimes even their apartments.

U.S. travel advisories have warned against going to Shanghai and the Chinese territory of Hong Kong because of pandemic-related measures, including the risk of infected children being sent to isolation facilities without their parents. The Shanghai government said last week that it would slightly relax the child separation policy, which has caused widespread outrage in China.

The Chinese government has defended its pandemic strategy, which it now calls “dynamic zero-Covid,” as the best approach for the country. While acknowledging that some cases are inevitable, it aims to keep the number of cases as low as possible to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.

“The Chinese government puts people and life front and center and follows the dynamic-zero policy, which demonstrates its sense of responsibility for people in China and the rest of the world,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news briefing Monday.

In a statement after the U.S. allowed employees to leave voluntarily, Zhao said that China’s pandemic policies were “science-based and effective,” and that officials were confident that Shanghai and other parts of China would prevail over the current outbreak.

“We are strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the U.S. side’s groundless accusation against China’s epidemic response policies, and have lodged solemn representations with the U.S. side,” he said.

On Monday, Shanghai reported a record 26,000 new virus cases, almost all of them asymptomatic. Officials said they would start easing the lockdown in some areas depending on the number of cases, though it could be reinstated if the virus re-emerges.

Ed Flanagan contributed.

Source: This post first appeared on NBC News

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