- Authorities rush to add hospital beds, build fever clinics
- The US raises concerns about the possibility of COVID mutations
- Beijing reports five more deaths on Tuesday
- Tight security at crematoria amid doubts over death toll
BEIJING/SINGAPORE, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Cities across China scrambled to install hospital beds and build fever control clinics on Tuesday as authorities reported five more deaths and international concern rose in connection with Beijing’s sudden decision to let the virus run free.
China this month began dismantling its strict “zero-Covid” lockdown and testing regime after protests against curbs that had kept the virus at bay for three years, but at a huge cost to society and the country’s second-largest economy. world.
Now, as the virus sweeps through a country of 1.4 billion people who lack the natural immunity that has protected them for so long, there is growing concern about possible deaths, virus mutations and the impact on the economy and trade.
“Every new epidemic wave in another country carries the risk of new variants, and that risk is higher the bigger the outbreak, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be a big one,” said Alex Cook, vice dean for research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.
“However, China must inevitably weather a major wave of COVID-19 if it is to reach an endemic state, in a future free of gridlock and the resulting economic and political damage.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that the potential for the virus to mutate as it spreads in China was “a threat to people everywhere”.
Xu Wenbo, an official with the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that new mutations will occur, but dismissed concerns.
“The escape immunity ability of new species becomes stronger, more contagious,” Xu said. “But the chance of them becoming more lethal is low. The chance of strains that are more contagious and more pathogenic is even lower.”
Beijing reported five COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, following two on Monday, which were the first deaths reported in a week. In total, China has reported 5,242 deaths from COVID since the pandemic emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019, a very low number by global standards.
But there is growing doubts that the statistics are reflecting the true impact of a disease spreading through cities after China lifted restrictions including more mandatory testing on December 7.
Since then, some hospitals have been flooded, pharmacies have run out of medicine, and many people have gone into self-imposed isolation, straining delivery services.
Some health experts estimate that 60% of people in China – equivalent to 10% of the world’s population – could become infected in the coming months, and that more than 2 million may die.
In the capital, Beijing, security guards patrolled the entrance to a designated COVID crematorium, where Reuters reporters on Saturday saw a long line of cars and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside. Reuters could not determine whether the deaths were due to COVID.
Speaking at the same press conference as Xu, head of the infectious diseases department of Beijing First University Hospital, Wang Guiqiang said that only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID will be classified as COVID deaths. Heart attacks or cardiovascular diseases that cause the death of infected people will not have that classification.
In Beijing, which has emerged as a major infection hotspot, commuters, many coughing into their masks, returned to trains to work and streets were returning to life after being mostly deserted last week.
Streets and subway trains in Shanghai, where rates of COVID transmission are rising to Beijing’s, were emptier.
“People are staying away because they’re sick or they’re afraid of getting sick, but mostly now, I think it’s because they’re actually sick,” said Yang, a trainer at a nearly empty gym in Shanghai.
Top health officials have softened their tone on the threat posed by the disease in recent weeks, a reversal from earlier messages that the virus had to be eradicated to save lives even as the rest of the world opened up.
However, there are growing signs that the virus is taking its toll on China’s fragile health system.
Cities are stepping up efforts to expand intensive care units and build fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent the wider spread of infectious diseases in hospitals.
In the past week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou announced they had added hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports facilities.
The virus is also hitting China’s economy, which is expected to grow by 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century. Sick workers are slowing production and hampering logistics, economists say.
A survey by World Economics showed that China’s business confidence fell in December to the lowest level since January 2013.
Industrial activity is weakest in the world’s top oil importer limited earnings for crude oil prices and pushed copper lower.
China kept its key lending rates unchanged for a fourth consecutive month on Tuesday.
Reporting by Bernard Orr, Albee Zhang, Ethan Wang and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing, Xinghui Kok and Chen Lin in Singapore, David Stanway and Casey Hall in Shanghai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by John Geddie and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel
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