China’s surge in COVID-19 cases after the government’s abrupt rollback of its heavy-handed restrictions had led to chaos at ill-prepared and understaffed hospitals, as long lines of fearful residents inundate its clinics.
With limited exposure to a disease kept largely in check until now, China is unprepared, according to analysts, for a wave of infections that could overwhelm its fragile health system and cripple businesses as its economy continues to shrink.
Cases began climbing after China’s government last week began to unwind its controversial “zero-COVID” policy after unprecedented protests.
In Beijing, about 80 people huddled in the cold outside a fever clinic in the high-end district of Chaoyang as ambulances zipped past.
A Beijing government official said Monday night that visits to such clinics have risen to 22,000 per day, up 16 times from the previous week.
Some medical facilities are struggling to find enough staff and others are suspending or delaying non-COVID treatments, including dialysis and chemotherapy.
State media has been urging people with mild symptoms to stay home and avoid calling Beijing’s emergency medical hotline in a bid to free up resources for those who are severely ill.
Staff in at least one hospital in the capital have been asked to keep coming to work even if they have COVID, provided that their symptoms are mild, according to one medical worker speaking to Bloomberg News.
At another hospital in Beijing, doctors and nurses have reportedly been ordered back to work from holidays.
Some facilities have reported staff shortages of up to 20%.
China has 138,000 intensive care beds, the general director of Bureau of Medical Administration of the National Health Commission, Jiao Yahui, said at a news conference Friday. That is less than one for every 10,000 people.
In recent weeks, local cases have been trending lower since a late November peak of 40,052, official figures show. Sunday’s tally of 8,626 was down from 10,597 new cases the previous day.
It isn’t clear how much infection numbers have increased since Beijing last week ended mandatory testing as often as once a day in many areas.
But interviews and social media accounts say there are outbreaks in businesses and schools across the country. Some restaurants and other businesses have closed because too many employees are sick.
The virus testing site in Beijing’s Runfeng Shuishang neighborhood shut down because all its employees were infected, the neighborhood government said Saturday on its social media account. “Please be patient,” it said.
China’s official total case count of 363,072 is up nearly 50% from the Oct. 1 level after a rash of outbreaks across the country. The official death toll is 5,235, compared with 1.1 million for the United States.
In comments Monday in the state-backed newspaper Shanghai Securities News, Zhang Wenhong, head of a team of experts in the commercial hub, said the current outbreak could peak in a month, though an end to the pandemic might be three to six months away.
China has dropped testing prior to many activities, reined in quarantine and was preparing to deactivate a mobile app used to track the travel histories of its 1.4 billion citizens as the country is looking to join much of the rest of the world in trying to live with the virus.
In a WeChat post, Zhang’s team said that despite the surge, the current Omicron strain did not cause long-term damage and people should be optimistic.
“We are about to walk out of the tunnel; air, sunshine, free travel, all waiting for us,” the post said.
“Try as much as you can not to go out …,” it said on messaging app WeChat. “Be the first person to take responsibility for your own health, let’s face this together.”
Such messages appear to have hit home for some who say they are reluctant to visit crowded places or dine at restaurants.
Yet China is pushing to free up nationwide travel, even if foreign trips may be a while off.
A state-mandated mobile app identifying travelers to COVID-stricken areas will shut down at midnight Monday.
The number of domestic flights available across China exceeded 7,400, nearly double from a week ago, flight tracker app VariFlight showed.
Experts, however, warn there still is a chance China’s ruling Communist Party might do a U-turn and reimpose restrictions if it worries that hospitals might be overwhelmed.
With Post wires