Covid cases soar in China, hospitals struggle after restrictions are eased


Chinese hospitals scramble to contain emerging outbreaks across the country on Monday as authorities rolled back more than two years of Covid controls.

Following widespread protests against the government’s strict “zero-Covid” policy, authorities last week announced a dramatic relaxation of requirements for testing, digital health passports, and tracking and quarantines. In the days since, hospitals have reported a surge in patient numbers, while hundreds of medical workers have contracted the virus.

Beijing city officials said at a briefing on Monday that 22,000 patients visited fever clinics the previous day, 16 times the daily average a week ago.

China braces for outbreak of infections as it eases Covid policy

“Hospitals bore the brunt of Zero Covid and are now being overwhelmed by an unprecedented outbreak,” said Yan, an eye surgeon in Beijing, who only revealed her last name because she was not authorized to speak to the media. More than half of the staff at her hospital had tested positive in the past week.

“Patients visiting the fever clinic have increased many times over last week and it will likely continue for weeks or even months,” she said.

A surge in cases is likely to overwhelm China’s health system, which for the past three years has focused on contact tracing and quarantines rather than building capacity for coronavirus outbreaks. China has 4.5 intensive care unit beds per 100,000 people, according to government data, and its recent goal of doubling intensive care unit capacity by the end of December is proving harder than expected.

The National Health Commission on Sunday launched an initiative to ensure major county-level hospitals are stocked with medical supplies and intensive care unit equipment. Hospitals have been ordered to increase their staff by 20 to 30 percent and set up an infectious diseases unit by the end of December.

The commission said Friday it will ensure 90 percent of rural hospitals have fever clinics while temporary quarantine centers, known as fangcang, are converted into hospitals.

China recorded 8,838 positive tests on Sunday, a number residents say does not reflect the true scale of infections as centralized testing, the only way to identify new infections, was removed. A contact-tracing app that monitors residents’ movements will no longer work as of Tuesday, with all user data to be erased.

Cities asked residents not to call emergency services unless their symptoms were severe, while municipal and rural clinics complained of staff shortages, according to local media reports. Panicked residents are hoarding antigen tests and medicines.

Karen Bai, 36, who lives in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, has had a fever for three days but has been unable to take tests at home. She suffers from a blood disorder and is immunocompromised, and her doctor has advised her to stay away from hospitals.

“So many patients have Covid but they don’t know it,” she said. “Everyone has said life will get back to normal, but for me it has only gotten worse.”

China’s pursuit of zero Covid has left the public with low levels of natural immunity, leaving the population vulnerable. Authorities are particularly focused on protecting older people, who have lower vaccination rates and are the target of an ongoing vaccination campaign. Zhong Wenhong, a Shanghai-based infectious disease expert, advised elderly residents to refrain from group activities such as dancing in public places or playing mah-jong for at least a month.

Caixin reported earlier this month that China aims to vaccinate 90 percent of those over 80 with at least the first vaccination, but officials have refrained from announcing a specific target amid older people’s reluctance to get vaccinated. Only 40 percent of Chinese over 80 have received a booster shot, despite months of campaigning and gifts to encourage uptake.

Last week, government adviser Feng Zijian, a former National Health Commission official, predicted that 60 percent of the population could be infected in the first wave of infections. Authorities expect cases to spike around the Lunar New Year in late January.

China’s coronavirus cases could peak in a month, but it’s “more complicated” to predict when the outbreak will end, experts said.

“In the short term, there will be massive demand for ICU resources as severe cases increase,” Zhang Ming, deputy chief of the intensive care unit at Zhongshan Hospital in Shanghai, told financial news agency Yicai, adding that larger hospitals are becoming larger cities are more prepared, but he “cannot speak for the situation in general”.

Amid fears of the virus, and after more than two years of official media warnings of its dangers, misinformation has spread, with local residents buying canned peaches after rumors spread they would prevent contagion and experts weighing whether better-looking people are less likely to do so do contract it.

Still, local residents say they welcome the opening. “It’s a risk worth taking,” said Yan, the doctor in Beijing. “If the lockdown had continued, more people would have died of poverty and hunger even if they had remained covid-free.”

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