Beijing is running out of medical supplies as the Chinese capital battles a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak, health workers said, emphasizing limited resources as authorities lift pandemic restrictions.
Clinics for Covid-19 patients are filling up quickly and some hospitals in the city of 22 million have started rationing ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Residents of Chaoyang, the district at the center of Beijing’s Covid outbreak, have cleared pharmacy shelves of antipyretic drugs and rapid antigen tests, staff at several pharmacies told the FT.
“We have a child with a high fever, but all the pharmacies are out of ibuprofen,” said a Beijing resident surnamed Lin. “It came too fast, we didn’t have time to prepare.”
Beijing is facing its first major wave of coronavirus just as the Chinese leadership has begun to ease zero-Covid controls. China’s cabinet on Wednesday officially allowed home quarantine for asymptomatic and mild patients, a sign that the country’s system of lockdowns, enforced quarantines in state facilities, mass testing and contact tracing has been unable to contain spreading outbreaks.
New models released this week by the Financial Times showed as many as 1 million people could die in the country in a “winter wave” in the coming months.
Tens of millions of Chinese are expected to travel home during the Lunar New Year holiday next month, raising the risk of the virus spreading from large urban centers to vulnerable rural villages.
Most of the country’s 1.4 billion people have never been infected and have received China’s domestically made vaccines, which offer less protection than foreign-made vaccines using messenger RNA technology.
Lines formed outside pharmacies across Chaoyang on Thursday night as Beijingers tried to stock up on medical supplies. “If you’re lining up for fever reducers – ibuprofen – we don’t have any,” a pharmacist called out to a line of a dozen people waiting in near-freezing temperatures.
Emergency rooms in Beijing are already reporting an influx of Covid patients, which the city is trying to channel through 94 designated clinics and hospitals. Beijing Union Medical College Hospital, one of the country’s top medical institutions, has converted its staff gym into a dialysis center for patients with end-stage kidney disease who have tested positive for the virus.
“Fever clinics are a total mess,” said a Beijing doctor, who advised patients to stay at home rather than seek medical treatment. This message is also being shared by local media as authorities seek to reserve the city’s limited hospital beds for patients with severe cases.
A person briefed on the situation at one of the fever clinics said it was overflowing with patients and lacking doctors. “The hospital sends doctors from other departments to the fever clinic on shifts,” the person said. “Everyone works 24 hours straight, rests 24 hours, and then comes back for another shift.”
A study by the Peking University School of Public Health last year warned that the capital was unprepared for such a Covid wave. The study found that Beijing had about 500 doctors specializing in treating fever, which it said was “too low”.
The city reported 4,338 new Covid cases on Thursday for the previous day. That number was lower than Tuesday’s total, but came as the testing rate slowed and residents turned to rapid at-home tests that aren’t included in the city’s case list.
At the Beijing Civil Aviation Hospital, the line to enter the fever clinic extended to the parking lot. “We’ve been waiting for two hours,” said one person with a fever.
Ma Han, 28, said he relied on friends to find medicine and antigen testing kits after his wife developed a fever on Monday. “I looked at all the delivery platforms — Meituan, Ele.me, JD — they’re either out of stock or couldn’t deliver in a day,” he said.
Residents of other Chinese cities have been hoarding resources amid widespread lockdowns this year.
A doctor at Shanghai’s Sixth People’s Hospital said the abrupt easing of restrictions meant the city’s overworked doctors would soon be faced with an exploding number of Covid patients.
“Our hospitals hardly keep up normal operations these days,” said the doctor.
Additional reporting by Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Edward White in Seoul