BEIJING (AP) — The death toll in the latest COVID-19 spike in China’s capital Beijing has risen incrementally as feverish patients at the clinic and an increase in funeral activity signal a rising outbreak following a relaxation of strict virus control regulations.
Unofficial reports suggest a widespread surge in new coronavirus cases, and relatives of victims and people working in the funeral industry said deaths from COVID-19 were on the rise. Those people spoke on the condition that they would not be identified for fear of retaliation, official policies and the direction of the latest outbreak remain shrouded in uncertainty and confusion.
The National Health Commission said on Tuesday that five newly recorded fatalities, all in Beijing, have brought the country’s total death toll to 5,242 — relatively low by global standards but may rise significantly following government moves to move away from the “zero-COVID” policies of lockdowns, quarantines and mandatory testing that have rocked the economy and spawned rare anti-government protests.
With people testing and recovering at home, China has said it is no longer able to accurately track the number of new cases, making it significantly more difficult to gauge the state of the current wave of infection and its direction. Some scientific models have estimated that the number will rise with an eventual death toll in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
China is trying to persuade reluctant seniors and others at risk to get vaccinated, apparently with only moderate success. Vaccination centers visited in recent days were largely empty and there was no major publicity in the fully state-controlled media.
The other major concern is strengthening health resources in smaller towns and the vast rural hinterland ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush in January, which will see migrant workers return to their hometowns.
The number of fever clinics has expanded in both urban and rural areas and people have been asked to stay at home unless they are seriously ill to conserve resources. Hospitals are also short on staff, and reports say workers have been asked to return to their posts as long as they are not feverish.
China’s health authorities count only those who have died directly from COVID-19, excluding deaths attributed to underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease that increase the risk of serious illness.
In many other countries, guidelines state that any death where the coronavirus is a factor or contributor is counted as COVID-19 related.
China has long touted its restrictive “zero COVID” approach to keeping cases and deaths relatively low, comparing itself favorably with the US, where the death toll has passed 1.1 million.
Yet the policies of lockdowns, travel restrictions, mandatory testing and quarantines placed enormous strain on Chinese society and the national economy, apparently convincing the ruling Communist Party to heed outside advice and change its strategy.