China’s top health authority has announced that it has stopped releasing daily Covid-19 case numbers as reports say the true number of the country’s ongoing outbreak is far worse than the official figures released by the authorities.
The National Health Commission (NHC) said Sunday that “relevant outbreak information” would instead be released by China’s CDC, a sub-division administered by the NHC. The decision to delegate case counts to a lower authority comes as China faces an unprecedented wave of coronavirus after a drastic easing of restrictions.
The statement did not specify how often China’s CDC would release its Covid reports. Traditionally, China’s CDC only publishes monthly summaries for all infectious diseases regulated under Chinese law, from seasonal flu to hepatitis B and plague.
Since China drastically eased its Covid restrictions earlier this month, there has been no clear data on the extent of the spread of the virus nationally.
China stopped officially counting its total number of infections after authorities shut down their nationwide network of PCR test stands and announced they would stop collecting data on asymptomatic cases. People in China now use rapid antigen tests to detect infection and are not required to report positive results.
Health officials in China’s Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, said Sunday they are seeing more than a million new Covid-19 cases every day. The province has a population of 64 million according to the latest census data released in 2021. According to CNN calculations, this would indicate about 1,563 daily new infections per 100,000 people.
Deputy head of the Zhejiang Health Commission Yu Xinle said the province’s current wave is expected to peak around New Year’s Day — with daily infection numbers hitting 2 million. that would mean more than 3,000 new daily cases per 100,000 people – and take a week before it recedes.
The 9-million-strong city of Qingdao in northern Shandong province is also seeing around half a million new infections every day, the city’s health chief Bo Tao told reporters on Friday, adding that the peak is yet to come. According to CNN calculations, this equates to 5,556 infections per 100,000 inhabitants.
In the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan, a city of more than 10 million people, health officials said on Friday they were seeing between 250,000 and 350,000 new cases every day.
“The peak of Covid infection is approaching … Dongguan’s infection numbers are accelerating, our healthcare system and health workers are facing an unprecedented challenge and immense pressure,” the city’s health authority said in a statement.
For nearly three years, the Chinese government has used strict lockdowns, centralized quarantines, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing to stem the spread of the virus. That costly strategy was abandoned in early December after an explosion of protests across the country against tough restrictions that have upended businesses and daily life.
However, experts have warned that the country is ill-prepared for such a drastic phase-out, as it has failed to increase vaccination rates among the elderly, increased the capacity of hospital intensive care units and stockpiled antiviral drugs.
A study in early December found China’s abrupt and ill-prepared exit from zero Covid could result in nearly 1 million deaths.
Nearly 250 million people in China may have contracted Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, according to an internal estimate by the country’s top health authorities, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times reported on Friday.
If the estimate is correct – which CNN cannot independently confirm – it would account for about 18% of China’s 1.4 billion people and represent the world’s largest Covid-19 outbreak to date.
The figures cited were presented on Wednesday during an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC), according to both media outlets – which cited sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions. The NHC summary of Wednesday’s meeting says it is looking into treating patients affected by the new outbreak.
The numbers are in stark contrast to public data from the NHC, which reported just 62,592 symptomatic cases in the first 20 days of December. CNN has reached out to the NHC for comment.
Facing growing skepticism that it is downplaying Covid deaths, the Chinese government recently defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing that it had updated its method of counting deaths from the virus.
According to the latest guidance from the National Health Commission, only those whose deaths are caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, Wang Guiqiang, a top infectious disease doctor, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Those who are presumed to have died from another illness or underlying condition, such as in the case of a heart attack, are not counted as virus deaths, even if they had Covid at the time, he said.
Officially, China had reported just eight Covid deaths this month as of December 22 — a strikingly low number given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low booster rates among vulnerable elderly.
The official tally was met with disbelief and derision online, where there are many posts mourning loved ones dying of Covid. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative articles, reported the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with Covid on days when the official count was zero.