China reports huge rise in COVID-related deaths after data critique

  • Nearly 60,000 COVID-related hospital deaths reported
  • China has been criticized for underreporting COVID deaths
  • Official says emergency hospital admissions have peaked
  • Travel restorative for the lunar new year holiday

BEIJING, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – China said on Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospital since it abandoned its zero-COVID policy last month, a huge increase on previously reported figures following global criticism of the country’s coronavirus data.

In early December, after widespread protests in late November, Beijing abruptly dismantled its strict three-year anti-virus regimen of frequent testing, travel restrictions and massive lockdowns, and cases have since risen to 1.4 billion across the country.

A health official said on Saturday that COVID fever and emergency hospitalizations had peaked and the number of hospital patients continued to fall.

Between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12, the number of COVID-related deaths in Chinese hospitals totaled 59,938, Jiao Yahui, chief of the Bureau of Medical Administration under the National Health Commission (NHC), told a press briefing.

Of those fatalities, 5,503 were caused by respiratory failure due to COVID and the rest were due to a combination of COVID and other illnesses, she said.

While international health experts have predicted at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China had previously reported just over 5,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, one of the lowest death rates in the world.

Authorities had reported five or fewer deaths per day for the past month β€” numbers inconsistent with long lines at funeral homes and body bags leaving overcrowded hospitals.

The World Health Organization said this week that China was grossly underreporting deaths from COVID, though it was now providing more information about its outbreak.

The UN agency did not immediately comment on Saturday.

China, which last reported daily COVID death figures on Monday, has repeatedly defended the veracity of its data on the disease.

On Saturday, Jiao said China divides COVID-related deaths between those from respiratory failure due to a coronavirus infection and those from an underlying illness combined with a coronavirus infection.

“The standard is essentially in line with standards adopted by the World Health Organization and other major countries,” she said.

Last month, a Chinese health expert said at a government press conference that only deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID would be classified as COVID deaths. Heart attacks or cardiovascular diseases that cause the death of infected people would not receive that classification.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the tenfold increase in deaths announced Saturday suggests that China’s COVID policy reversal is “indeed linked to” a strong rise in serious cases and deaths, especially among the elderly.

However, he said it was unclear whether the new data accurately reflected actual deaths, as doctors are discouraged from reporting COVID-related deaths and the figures only include deaths in hospitals.

β€œIn rural areas, for example, many elderly people died at home but were not tested for covid because they did not have access to test kits or were unwilling to get tested,” he said.

‘DOWNWARD TREND’

Jiao, the Chinese health official, said the number of patients requiring emergency treatment was declining and the number of patients in fever clinics testing positive for COVID-19 was also steadily declining. The number of serious cases has also peaked, she added, although they remained at high levels and the patients are mostly elderly.

Officials said China will strengthen the supply of medicines and medical equipment in rural areas and strengthen the training of frontline medical personnel in those regions.

“The number of visitors to the fever clinic generally shows a decreasing trend after a peak, both in urban and rural areas,” Jiao said.

A surge in travel ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions of people return home from cities to small towns and rural areas, has fueled concerns that it will spark a surge in cases during a celebration that begins Jan. 21.

This week, the WHO warned of risks arising from holiday travel. China reopened its borders on January 8.

Despite concerns over infections, air passenger numbers in China have recovered to 63% of 2019 levels since the start of the annual travel season on Jan. 7, the industry regulator said Friday.

The Department of Transport has predicted that during the festival migration, which runs until February 15, passenger traffic will increase by 99.5% on the year, or a recovery to 70.3% of 2019 levels.

In the Chinese gambling hub of Macau, Friday’s 46,000 daily inbound travelers were the highest since the start of the pandemic, the majority from the mainland, the city government said. It expects a spring festival boom in tourism.

($1=6.7010 Chinese Yuan Renminbi)

Additional reporting by Beijing and Shanghai editorials; Edited by Clarence Fernandez, Helen Popper and Frances Kerry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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