China slashes notification of COVID-19 case count as virus surges
BEIJING — China’s National Health Commission cut its daily COVID-19 report from Wednesday in response to a sharp drop in PCR testing since the government eased virus measures after daily cases hit record highs.
A notice on the commission’s website said it had stopped publishing daily figures on the number of COVID-19 cases where no symptoms are detected because it was “impossible to accurately capture the actual number of asymptomatic infected persons”, which generally accounted for the vast majority of cases. new infections. The only numbers they report are confirmed cases detected at public testing facilities.
This poses a major challenge for China as it relaxes its strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy. With mass PCR testing no longer compulsory and people with mild symptoms being allowed to recover at home rather than in one of the field hospitals which have become notorious for their overcrowding and poor hygiene, it has become more difficult to assess the actual number of cases.
Beijing’s streets have become eerily quiet, with queues outside fever clinics – the number of which has risen from 94 to 303 – and at pharmacies, where cold and flu medicines are harder to come by .
Although authorities said they were stocking up on millions of rapid COVID-19 antigen test kits for pharmacies in Beijing, they remained difficult to obtain.
A Beijing resident surnamed Zhu said he developed a sore throat and a fever, but was unable to confirm whether he had the coronavirus due to a lack of antigen test kits.
“Beijing is really confused right now,” Zhu said, declining to provide his full name to talk about what could be considered a sensitive topic in China. “They did a full 180 degree turn without even going through a transition period.”
Despite an effort to boost vaccinations for the elderly, two centers set up in Beijing to administer vaccines were empty on Tuesday, except for medical staff. Despite fears of a major outbreak, there was little evidence of an increase in the number of patients.
At the fever clinic of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, a dozen people were waiting for nucleic acid test results. Nurses in full white protective gear checked the patients one by one.
A few kilometers (miles) to the south, at Chaoyang Hospital, a dozen people waited in a line of blue tents, deflecting the winds amid sub-zero temperatures. Someone in the queue pulled out a bottle of sanitizer and sprayed it around them as they waited.
Across the street, at Gaoji Baikang Pharmacy, a dozen people lined up for cough medicine and Chinese herbal remedies. A sign out front told waiting customers: ‘Avoid panic and hoarding, we are doing everything we can to stock up to meet your medical needs.’ A man walking out had bought two packets of Lianhua Qingwen, a Chinese herbal remedy, saying each customer was prohibited from buying more than that.
Requests to health hotlines have increased six-fold, according to state media.
Not counting asymptomatic cases, China on Wednesday reported just 2,249 “confirmed” infections, bringing the national total to 369,918 – more than double the level on Oct. 1. It has recorded 5,235 deaths – compared to 1.1 million in the United States.
The figures provided by the Chinese government have not been independently verified and questions have been raised about whether the Communist Party has sought to downplay the number of cases and deaths.
As of Tuesday, US consulates in northeast China’s Shenyang City and the central city of Wuhan have only been offering emergency services “in response to the rising number of COVID cases. -19,” the State Department said.
President Xi Jinping’s government is still officially determined to stop the transmission of the virus. But the latest measures suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantine or travel or business closures as it winds down its ‘zero-COVID’ strategy.
Despite relaxed rules, restaurants were mostly closed or empty in the capital. Many companies struggle to find enough staff who have not been infected. Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s most popular shopping districts, has been deserted despite the demolition of its anti-COVID-19 fences in recent days.
Hospitals also reportedly struggled to stay staffed, while packages piled up at distribution points due to a shortage of China’s ubiquitous motorized tricycle delivery drivers.
Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to complete the semester at home in hopes of reducing the risk of a larger COVID-19 outbreak during January’s Lunar New Year travel rush.
Starting Tuesday, China also stopped tracking some travel, potentially reducing the likelihood of people being quarantined for visiting COVID-19 hotspots. Despite this, China’s international borders remain largely closed and it is unclear when restrictions will be eased for inbound travelers and Chinese wishing to travel abroad.
The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it was ending many of the toughest measures, after three years of enforcing some of the toughest virus restrictions in the world.
Last month in Beijing and several other cities, protests against the restrictions turned into calls for the resignation of Xi and the Communist Party – a level of public dissent not seen in decades. The party responded with a massive show of force, and an unknown number of people were arrested during the protests or in the days that followed.
Experts warn there is still a chance the party could backtrack and reimpose restrictions if a large-scale outbreak ensues.