SHANGHAI - Esther Zhao thought she was doing the right thing when she brought her 2-1/2-year-old daughter to a Shanghai hospital with a fever on March 26.

Three days later, Zhao was begging health authorities not to separate them after she and the little girl both tested positive for COVID, saying her daughter was too young to be taken away to a quarantine centre for children.

Doctors then threatened Zhao that her daughter would be left at the hospital, while she was sent to the centre, if she did not agree to transfer the girl to the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center in the city's Jinshan district.

Since then she has had only one brief message that her daughter was fine, sent through a group chat with doctors, despite repeated pleas for information from Zhao and her husband, who is in a separate quarantine site after also testing positive.

"There have been no photos at all...I'm so anxious, I have no idea what situation my daughter is in," she said on Saturday through tears, while still stuck at the hospital she went to last week. "The doctor said Shanghai rules is that children must be sent to designated points, adults to quarantine centres and you're not allowed to accompany the children."

Zhao is panicking even more after images of crying COVID-19-positive children separated from their parents went viral in China.

The photos and videos posted on China's Weibo and Douyin social media platforms showed wailing babies kept three to a cot. In one video, a groaning toddler crawls out of a room with four child-sized beds pushed to one side of the wall. While a few adults can be seen in the videos, they are outnumbered by the number of children.

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the images but a source familiar with the facility confirmed they were taken at the Jinshan facility.

The Jinshan centre did not answer calls made by Reuters on Saturday. The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

As Shanghai, China's most populous city and main financial hub, battles its largest ever COVID-19 outbreak, stories like Zhao's and videos of the separated children are angering residents and raising questions about the costs of Beijing's "dynamic clearance" policy to fight the spread of the disease.

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By Saturday, the original post was deleted from Weibo but thousands of people continued to comment and repost the images. "This is horrific," said one. "How could the government come up with such a plan?," said another.

In some cases children as young as 3-months old are being separated from their breastfeeding mothers, according to posts in a quarantine hospital WeChat group shared with Reuters. In one room described in a post, there are eight children without an adult.

In another case, over twenty children from a Shanghai kindergarten aged 5- to 6-years old have been sent to a quarantine centre without their parents, a source familiar with the situation said.

Shanghai's latest outbreak begun about a month ago and authorities have locked down its 26 million people in a two-stage exercise that begun on Monday.

While the number of cases in Shanghai's are small by global standards, Chinese authorities have vowed to stick with "dynamic clearance," where they aim to test for, trace and centrally quarantine all positive cases.

The U.S., French and Italian foreign consulates have warned their citizens in Shanghai that family separations could happen as Chinese authorities executed COVID curbs, according to notices seen by Reuters.

Shanghai on Saturday reported 6,051 locally transmitted asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and 260 symptomatic cases for April 1, versus 4,144 asymptomatic cases and 358 symptomatic ones on the previous day.

All of mainland China reported a total of 2,129 new COVID-19 cases on April 1, up from 1,827 cases a day earlier.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Engen Tham, Additional reporting by Winni Zhou; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)