Covid cases rise in China, hospitals struggle after restrictions are relaxed


Chinese hospitals scrambled to contain outbreaks that emerged across the country on Monday as authorities pulled back more than two years of covid controls.

After widespread protests against the government’s strict “zero covid” policies, authorities announced last week that requirements for testing, digital health transitions, and monitoring and quarantines have been significantly relaxed. Since then, hundreds of medical staff have been infected with the virus as hospitals report an increase in patients.

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

China prepares for infection outbreak wave as it relaxes its covid policies

“Hospitals are bearing the brunt of zero covid and are now overwhelmed by an unprecedented epidemic,” said Yan, an eye surgeon in Beijing who only revealed his last name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. More than half of the staff at the hospital tested positive last week. ”

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

The rise in cases is likely to overwhelm China’s healthcare system, which for the past three years has focused on contact tracing and quarantine rather than building capacity for covid outbreaks. According to government data, China has 4.5 intensive care beds for every 100,000 people, and meeting its goal of doubling ICU capacity by the end of December is turning out to be more difficult than expected.

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

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

China recorded 8,838 positive tests on Sunday, a figure residents said does not reflect the true extent of infections since centralized testing, the only way to detect new infections, was removed. A contact tracing app that tracks residents’ movements will stop working from Tuesday and all user data will be deleted.

Local and rural clinics complained of staff shortages, while cities begged residents not to call the emergency services if their symptoms were not serious, according to local media reports. Panicked residents stockpile antigen tests and drugs.

Karen Bai, 36, living in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, has had a fever for three days, but was unable to take any tests at home. He suffers from a blood disease, is immunocompromised, and his doctor has advised him to stay away from hospitals.

“Many patients have covid but they don’t know it,” he said. “Everyone says life will go back to normal, but to me things just got worse.”

China’s pursuit of zero covid has resulted in low levels of natural immunity among the population, leaving the population vulnerable. Authorities are particularly focused on protecting the elderly, who have lower vaccination rates and are the target of the current vaccination campaign. Shanghai-based infectious diseases specialist Zhang Wenhong advised elderly residents to avoid group activities such as dancing or playing mahjongg in public squares for at least a month.

Caixin reported earlier this month that China is aiming to vaccinate 90 percent of people aged 80 and over with at least the first vaccine, but officials avoided announcing a specific target due to hesitation about getting vaccinated among the elderly. Only 40 percent of Chinese over 80 have received the booster vaccine despite months of campaigns and gifts to encourage buying.

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

Experts say cases of covid in China could peak in a month, but predicting when the outbreak will end is “more complicated”.

“In the short term, there will be a huge demand for intensive care resources due to the significant increase in cases,” Zhang Ming, vice president of the intensive care unit at Zhongshan Hospital in Shanghai, told financial news outlet Yicai. cities tend to be more prepared, but “cannot speak for the situation in general.”

Amid more than two years of official media warnings of the dangers of the virus, amid virus scares, misinformation has spread as the public buys canned peaches amid rumors it will prevent transmission, and experts ponder whether better-looking patients are less likely to get sick. IT.

Still, residents say they welcome the opening. “It’s a risk worth taking,” said Yan, a doctor in Beijing. “If the quarantine continued, more people would die of poverty and starvation even if they stayed away from Covid.”

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