BEIJING (AP) — China reported nearly 60,000 deaths on Saturday among people who had COVID-19 since early December, with hard numbers for an unprecedented rise seen in overcrowded hospitals and packaged crematoriums, even as the government released little data on the status of the pandemic for weeks.
Those numbers may still understate the toll, though the government said the “emergency peak” of the latest peak appears to be over.
The toll included 5,503 deaths from respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 and 54,435 deaths from other conditions combined with COVID-19 since Dec. 8, the National Health Commission announced. It said those “COVID-related deaths” were happening in hospitals, meaning anyone who died at home would not be included in the numbers.
The report would more than double China’s official death toll from COVID-19 to 10,775 since the disease was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019. a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to COVID-19 in much of the world.
China stopped reporting data on COVID-19 deaths and infections after it abruptly lifted anti-virus controls in early December, despite a flurry of infections that began in October and has filled hospitals with feverish, wheezing patients. Beijing hospitals across the country are overwhelmed with patients, and funeral homes and crematoriums are struggling to process the dead.
The World Health Organization and other governments appealed for information after reports from city and provincial governments suggested that as many as hundreds of millions of people in China may have contracted the virus.
The number of infections now appears to be falling based on a decline in the number of patients visiting fever clinics, a National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui said.
The daily number of people going to those clinics peaked at 2.9 million on Dec. 23 and had dropped 83% to 477,000 by Thursday, according to Jiao.
“These data show that the national emergency peak has passed,” Jiao said at a news conference.
Whether China has truly passed a COVID-19 peak is difficult to judge, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at the University of Oklahoma and chief of quality control at the university hospital.
“It’s hard to know,” Bratzler said. “China has quarantined people indoors. There are many people who have not been vaccinated. The people are vulnerable.”
Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease physician and professor of public health at the Yale School of Public Health, said the number of COVID-19 deaths China is reporting may be a “significant underestimate” because of how they define them.
“They are using a very narrow case definition for (COVID) deaths,” Ko said. “They have to have respiratory failure … to be considered a case, you have to be in a place where they can say you met all the requirements, and that’s in a hospital.”
Hospitals in China, Ko said, are mostly located in major cities where COVID outbreaks have been reported, not isolated rural areas.
“This is the Lunar New Year, people travel, go to the countryside where the population is vulnerable,” Ko said. “We are really concerned about what will happen in China if this outbreak moves to rural areas.”
For nearly three years, China had kept its infection rate and deaths much lower than the United States and some other countries at the height of the pandemic with a “zero COVID” strategy which aimed to isolate each case. That closed off access to some cities, kept millions of people at home and sparked furious protests.
Those rules were suddenly relaxed in early December after some of the biggest expressions of public dissent against the ruling Communist Party in more than 30 years. That created new problems in a country that relies on domestically developed vaccines that are less reliable than others used globally, and where older people — those more susceptible to dying from the virus — are less likely to be vaccinated than the general population.
The Health Commission said the average age of people who died since December 8 is 80.3 and 90.1% are 65 and older. It said more than 90% of people who died had cancer, heart or lung disease, or kidney problems.
“The number of elderly patients dying from disease is relatively large, which suggests that we should pay more attention to elderly patients and try our best to save their lives,” said Jiao.
The United States, South Korea, Japan and several other countries have imposed virus testing and other controls on people coming from China. Beijing retaliated on Wednesday by suspending the issuance of new visas to travelers from South Korea and Japan.
This month, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said agency officials had met with Chinese officials to underscore the importance of sharing more details on COVID-19 issues, including hospitalizations and genetic sequencing.
Associated Press writer Ken Miller contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.