BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities are going door-to-door and paying people older than 60 to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But even as cases increase, 64-year-old Li Liansheng said his friends are alarmed by stories of fevers, blood clots and other side effects.
“When people hear about such incidents, they may not be willing to take the vaccines,” said Li, who was vaccinated before contracting COVID-19. A few days into his 10-day bout with the virus, Li is suffering from a sore throat and cough. He said it was like a “normal cold” with a slight fever.
China has joined other countries in dealing with cases instead of trying to stop transmission of the virus by lifting or easing rules on testing, quarantines and movement as it tries to reverse an economic downturn. But the shift has flooded hospitals with feverish, gasping patients.
The National Health Commission announced a campaign on Nov. 29 to boost vaccination rates among elderly Chinese, which health experts say is essential to avert a health care crisis. It’s also the biggest hurdle before the ruling Communist Party can lift the last of the world’s strictest anti-virus restrictions.
China kept the number of cases low for two years with a “zero-COVID” strategy that isolated cities and locked millions of people in their homes. Now, as it removes that approach, it is facing the widespread outbreaks that other countries have already experienced.
The Health Commission has recorded just six deaths from COVID-19 this month, bringing the country’s official toll to 5,241. This despite numerous reports from the families of relatives who have died.
China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 toll, a health official said last week. This extremely narrow definition excludes many deaths that other countries would attribute to COVID-19.
Experts have predicted 1 to 2 million deaths in China by the end of 2023.
Li, who was exercising on the leafy grounds of the Temple of Heaven in central Beijing, said he is considering getting a second booster because of the publicity campaign: “As long as we know the vaccine will not cause side effects big side, we have to get it..
Neighborhood committees that form the lowest level of government have been ordered to find everyone 65 and over and keep track of their health. They are doing what state media call the “ideological work” of lobbying residents to convince elderly relatives to get vaccinated.
In Beijing, the Chinese capital, the Liulidun neighborhood is promising people over 60 to 500 yuan ($70) to get a two-dose vaccination course and a booster.
The National Health Commission announced on December 23 that the number of people being vaccinated each day had more than doubled to 3.5 million nationwide. But that’s still a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of recordings that were being administered daily at the start of 2021.
The elderly are put off by the potential side effects of Chinese-made vaccines, for which the government has not released test results on people in their 60s and older.
Li said a 55-year-old friend suffered fever and blood clots after being vaccinated. He said they can’t be sure the shooting was to blame, but his friend is reluctant to take another one.
“It is also said that the virus keeps changing,” Li said. “How do we know if the vaccines we get are helpful?”
Some are reluctant because they have diabetes, heart problems and other health complications, despite warnings from experts that it is even more urgent that they get vaccinated because the risks of COVID-19 are more serious than the potential side effects of the vaccine in almost everyone.
A 76-year-old man taking his daily walk around the Temple of Heaven with the help of a stick said he wants to be vaccinated but has diabetes and high blood pressure. The man, who would only give his surname, Fu, said he wears masks and tries to avoid crowds.
The elderly also felt little urgency because the low number of cases before the latest surge meant few faced the risk of infection. However, the previous lack of infections left China with few people who had developed antibodies against the virus.
“Now, families and relatives of the elderly need to make it clear to them that an infection can cause serious illness and even death,” said Jiang Shibo of Fudan University medical school in Shanghai.
More than 90% of people in China have been vaccinated, but only about two-thirds of those over 80, according to the National Health Commission. According to its 2020 census, China has 191 million people aged 65 and over – a group that, by itself, would be the eighth most populous country, ahead of Bangladesh.
“Coverage rates for people over 80 still need to improve,” said Shanghai newspaper The Paper. “The elderly are at high risk.”
Du Ming’s son arranged for the 100-year-old to be vaccinated, according to his caretaker, Li Zhuqing, who was pushing a masked Du through a park in a wheelchair. Li agreed with this approach because none of the family members were infected, meaning they would be more likely to bring the disease home to Du if exposed.
Health officials refused reporters’ requests to visit vaccination centers. Two who briefly entered the centers were ordered to leave when employees learned who they were.
AP researcher Yu Bing and video producers Olivia Zhang and Wayne Zhang contributed.
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