COVID-19

China reports huge rise in COVID-related deaths after data criticism

Reuters
China reports huge rise in COVID-related deaths after data criticism

ARRIVALS. Passengers push their luggage through the international arrivals hall at Beijing Capital International Airport after China lifted the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) quarantine requirement for inbound travelers in Beijing, China on January 8, 2023.

Thomas Peter/REUTERS

(2nd UPDATE) A Chinese health official says COVID-19 fever and emergency hospitalizations peak and the number of hospitalized patients continues to decline

SHANGHAI, China – China said on Saturday, January 14, that nearly 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospital since it abandoned its zero-COVID policy last month, a huge increase from previously reported figures that follows global criticism of the country’s coronavirus data.

In early December, Beijing abruptly dismantled its strict three-year anti-virus regime of frequent testing, travel curbs and mass lockdowns after widespread protests in late November, and cases have surged since then across the nation of 1.4 billion.

A health official said on Saturday that COVID-19 fever and emergency hospitalizations had peaked and the number of hospitalized patients was continuing to decline.

Between December 8 and January 12, the number of COVID-related deaths in Chinese hospitals totaled 59,938, Jiao Yahui, head of the Bureau of Medical Administration under the National Health Commission (NHC), told a media briefing.

Of those fatalities, 5,503 were caused by respiratory failure due to COVID-19 and the remainder resulted from a combination of COVID-19 and other diseases, she said.

While international health experts have predicted at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China had previously reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.

Authorities had been reporting five or fewer deaths a day over the past month – figures inconsistent with long queues seen at funeral homes and body bags seen leaving crowded hospitals.

The World Health Organization said this week that China was heavily under-reporting deaths from COVID, although it was now providing more information on its outbreak.

The UN agency did not have immediate comment on Saturday.

China, which last reported daily COVID-19 death figures on Monday, has repeatedly defended the veracity of its COVID-19 data.

On Saturday, Jiao said China divides COVID-related deaths between those from respiratory failure due to coronavirus infection and those from underlying disease combined with coronavirus infection.

“The standard is basically in line with those adopted by the World Health Organization and other major countries,” she said.

Last month, a Chinese health expert at a government news conference said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID-19 would be classified as COVID-19 deaths. Heart attacks or cardiovascular disease causing death of infected people would not get that classification.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the tenfold increase in deaths announced on Saturday suggests that China’s COVID-19 policy reversal “is indeed associated with” a sharp rise in severe cases and deaths, especially among older people.

However, he said, it was unclear whether the new data accurately reflects actual fatalities because doctors are discouraged from reporting COVID-related deaths and the numbers include only deaths in hospitals.

“In the countryside, for example, many elderly people died at home but were not tested for COVID-19 due to the lack of access to test kits or their unwillingness to get tested,” he said.

‘Declining trend’

Jiao said the number of patients needing emergency treatment was declining and the ratio of patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 was steadily falling as well. The number of severe cases has also peaked, she added, though they remained at a high level, and patients are mostly elderly.

Officials said China will strengthen supplies of drugs and medical equipment in rural areas and beef up training of front-line medical staff in those regions.

“The number of fever clinic visitors are generally in a declining trend after peaking, both in cities and rural areas,” Jiao said.

A sharp rise in travel ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions return home from cities to small towns and rural areas, has fueled worry that it will bring a surge in cases during a celebration that begins on January 21.

This week, the WHO warned of risks stemming from holiday travel. China reopened its borders on January 8.

Despite worries about infections, air passenger volumes in China have recovered to 63% of 2019 levels since the annual travel season began on January 7, the industry regulator said.

The rapid business recovery is challenging airlines’ ability to ensure safety, and great attention to pandemic-related risks is needed, said Song Zhiyong, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

The transport ministry has predicted passenger traffic volumes to jump 99.5% on the year during the festival migration, which runs until February 15, or a recovery to 70.3% of 2019 levels.

In the Chinese gambling hub of Macau, Friday’s 46,000 daily inbound travellers were the highest number since the pandemic began, the majority from the mainland, the city government said. It expects a Spring Festival boom in tourism. – Rappler.com

($1=6.7010 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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