China plans to maintain its radical "zero-COVID policy" until at least next spring to lessen the risk of severe coronavirus cases and deaths among the elderly and prevent strain on the health care system, a Communist Party source said Thursday.

Expectations had been growing that strict curbs involving lockdowns in cities where outbreaks occur could be eased after the ruling party's twice-a-decade congress starting Sunday, but the source said the policy will not be relaxed due to "fears of widespread infections during the winter."

The stringent policy has dragged down growth in the world's second-largest economy, with the Communist Party recognizing that achieving the central government's gross domestic product target of around 5.5 percent growth in 2022 will be "not easy."

People line up to take a PCR test in Beijing on Oct. 12, 2022, as the Chinese leadership maintains a zero COVID-19 policy. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

In the April-June period, China's economy grew just 0.4 percent from a year earlier, with the pace of expansion slowing against the backdrop of a two-month lockdown in Shanghai, the country's commercial and financial hub.

However, the People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party, recently called for the continuation of the draconian measures, saying the country's economy will only stabilize after thorough prevention of coronavirus infections is achieved.

The paper has warned against complacency in recent days, citing the risk of virus mutations and the considerable number of elderly people in China who have not been fully vaccinated.

Under the tough measures, people in China must undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and show negative results in a smartphone app to enter public spaces. Movements are restricted in high-risk areas, and travelers from abroad are subject to minimum quarantine periods of seven days.

Although the quarantine periods have been gradually shortened from 21 days, the remaining measures prevent people in China from traveling abroad.

Reflecting public frustrations, images of people under lockdowns protesting the rigid anti-virus steps often appear on Chinese social media, but they are quickly deleted by authorities.

In a communique released Wednesday after a four-day meeting of senior party members in Beijing to make final arrangements for the upcoming congress, the ruling party said it is carrying out "the people's war" against the COVID-19 pandemic by making protection of their life and health a top priority.