COVID-19 cases surge in Beijing after China loosens virus rules

Outside a funeral home in eastern Beijing, dozens of people bundled up in parkas and hats to protect themselves from the frigid temperatures Friday night as workers in full protective suits carried out coffins one by one.

As a clerk with a clipboard called out the names of the dead, a relative approached the coffin to examine the body. One of the family members told The Associated Press that his loved one had been infected with COVID-19.

Coronavirus-related deaths are popping up in Beijing after weeks of China reporting no deaths, even as the country is seeing a surge in cases.

That surge comes as the government last week dramatically eased some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 containment measures. On Wednesday, the government said it would stop reporting asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 as they have become untraceable and mass testing is no longer required.

That break in reporting made it clear just how fast the virus is spreading. Posts on social media, business closures, and other anecdotal evidence suggest large numbers of infections.

It is not clear how many die from the virus

A health worker in full personal protective equipment stands behind a glass barrier with two circular openings, allowing them to take a sample from a man's mouth.
A man has a sample taken for a COVID test at a booth in Shanghai on Friday, December 16, 2022. It is unclear how many are dying from the virus. (Andrew Braun/The Associated Press)

It is also unclear how many people are dying from the virus. Relatives of an AP reporter who visited the Dongjiao funeral home told him that at least two people cremated there had died after testing positive.

Health authorities had designated Dongjiao and another funeral home to cremate those who die after testing positive, according to a relative of one of the dead. The woman said her elderly relative became ill in early December, tested positive and died Friday morning in an emergency room.

She said there were many people in the ER who had tested positive for COVID-19, adding that there were not enough nurses to care for them. The woman did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

For about an hour, an AP reporter saw about a dozen bodies being wheeled from Dongjiao Funeral Home.

About half a dozen people inside described how another victim had had trouble breathing that morning before she died, and the death certificate listed “pneumonia” as the cause of death, even after a positive COVID-19 test, said one of those people. The people interviewed did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Three shop clerks at the complex that houses the funeral home said there has been a marked increase in the number of people going there in recent days. It was estimated that around 150 bodies were being cremated daily, up from a few dozen a day.

One employee blamed it on the coronavirus, though another said there tends to be more deaths with the onset of winter. The employees did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Low death toll raises questions

China has not reported a death from COVID-19 since December 4.

The official death toll in China remains low, at just 5,235 deaths, compared to 1.1 million in the United States. However, public health experts caution that such statistics cannot be directly compared.

Chinese health authorities count only those who died directly from COVID-19, excluding those whose underlying conditions were worsened by the virus. In many other countries, guidelines stipulate that any death in which the coronavirus is a factor or contributor is counted as a COVID-19-related death.

A woman in a red coat and face mask takes a plastic bag from another woman.
A woman collects COVID-19 antigen kits from a worker at a pharmacy in Beijing, Sunday, December 11, 2022. A spike in cases is feared during the winter holidays in China, when tens of millions take trains, buses and planes for what may be your only trip home all year. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Experts say this has been the long-standing practice in China, but questions have been raised at times as to whether officials have tried to downplay the numbers.

Also on Friday, China’s Cabinet ordered rural areas to prepare for the return of migrant workers this holiday season in hopes of avoiding a large spike in COVID-19 cases in communities with limited medical resources.

Returnees must wear masks and avoid contact with older people, and village committees must monitor their movements, the guidelines said, but did not mention the possibility of isolation or quarantine.

A spike in cases is feared during the winter holidays in China, when tens of millions take trains, buses and planes for what may be their only trip home all year.

The next Lunar New Year falls on January 22, but migrants usually start returning home two weeks or more in advance. Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to finish the semester from home to help spread the travel rush and reduce the chance of a larger outbreak.

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Medical resources in smaller cities and rural communities, which are home to some 500 million of China’s 1.4 billion people, lag far behind those of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Rural medical infrastructure includes 17,000 county-level hospitals, many of which lack even a single ICU bed, 35,000 township health centers, and 599,000 village clinics.

China has been pushing to increase the number of fever clinics in rural areas to treat people with symptoms of COVID-19. Currently, around 19,400 of these clinics or offices operate in communities and municipalities across the country, state media reported on Friday.

By March 2023, about 90 percent of township-level health centers will have fever clinics, Nie Chunlei, head of primary health at the National Health Commission, said Thursday.

“This will effectively improve the ability of primary-level health care institutions to receive patients with fever,” said Nie, who also urged stockpiling medicines and antigen test kits, many of which have become in short supply even in large cities.

Elevation of regulation driven by social and economic factors

The lifting of some travel regulations has brought both relief and anxiety about the level of preparedness for COVID-19.

Health experts have said China will face a spike in infections in the next month or two and is trying to persuade reluctant older people and others at risk to get vaccinated.

CLOCK | Cases explode after China eases COVID-19 restrictions:

China recovers from COVID-19 peak as pandemic rules are relaxed

China’s move away from its strict zero-COVID policy has triggered an explosion in new cases. Health authorities are now rushing to vaccinate as many vulnerable people as possible, as the World Health Organization warns of a possible wave of new deaths.

The changes follow growing frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy blamed for hampering the economy and creating massive social stress. The easing began in November and accelerated after Beijing and several other cities witnessed protests over the restrictions that turned into calls for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down, a level of public dissent not seen in decades. .

It is unclear what prompted the government’s policy change. Experts cite economic pressure, public discontent and difficulties in containing the highly infectious omicron variant as factors.

China was not fully ready for the opening from a public health standpoint, and the decision was mainly driven by economic and social factors, said Zeng Guang, a health expert formerly affiliated with the China Center for Disease Control, speaking at a conference organized by the state newspaper Global Times.

Under the relaxed rules, mandatory testing is no longer required and people with mild symptoms can recover at home instead of going to a quarantine center. Meanwhile, the semi-autonomous gambling enclave of Macau will lift its mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad from Saturday, the government said.

However, travelers must spend five days in home isolation and undergo tests, and cannot enter mainland China until the 10th day of arrival. Both Macau and Hong Kong have scrapped most of the anti-COVID-19 measures.

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