China’s overburdened health system braces for peak of COVID infections

China expects COVID-19 infections to peak within a week, a health official said, with authorities predicting additional strain on the country’s healthcare system even as they downplay the severity of the disease and continue to report no new deaths.

Amid a rising outbreak and widespread protests against its “zero-COVID” regime of lockdowns and testing, China began dismantling this month, becoming the last major country to turn to life with the virus.

Its containment measures had slowed the economy to the lowest growth rate in almost half a century and blocked global supply chains and trade. As Chinese workers become increasingly ill, expect more disruption in the near term before the economy recovers later next year.

China reported fewer than 4,000 new symptomatic local COVID cases nationwide for Dec. 22 and no new COVID deaths for the third straight day. Authorities have narrowed the criteria for COVID-related deaths, prompting criticism from many disease experts.

Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, was quoted as saying by the Shanghai government-backed news agency The Paper on Thursday that China is “expected to reach peak infections within a week.”

“The peak of infection will also increase the rate of serious illnesses, which will have some impact on our overall medical resources,” he said, adding that the wave will continue for a month or two after that.

“We have to be mentally prepared that infection is inevitable.”

Still, Zhang said he visited nursing homes around Shanghai and found that the number of elderly struggling with severe symptoms was small.

Concerns about the near-term impact of the COVID wave in China pushed stock markets in China, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia lower. The yuan also weakened.

Infections in China are likely to top a million a day, with more than 5,000 deaths a day, in “a stark contrast” to official data, UK-based health data company Airfinity said this week.

A hospital in Shanghai has estimated that half of the hub’s 25 million people would be infected by the end of next week. Experts say China could face more than 1 million COVID deaths next year.

China’s abrupt policy change caught a fragile healthcare system off guard, with hospitals fighting for beds and blood, pharmacies for medicines, and government agencies to build clinics.

More than a dozen global health experts, epidemiologists, residents and policy analysts polled by Reuters identified failure to vaccinate the elderly and communicate an exit strategy to the public, and an over-focus on eliminating the virus as causes of the burden China’s medical infrastructure.

An initiative to vaccinate the elderly that started three weeks ago has not yet borne fruit. China’s overall vaccination rate is over 90%, but the rate for adults who have received booster shots drops to 57.9% and for those aged 80 and over to 42.3%, according to government data.

China has spent heavily on quarantine and testing facilities over the past three years instead of strengthening hospitals and clinics and training medical staff, these people said.

“There is an incredible lack of preparedness for the virus that is coming, even though they have been… amply warned,” said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases doctor at Singapore’s Rophi Clinic.

China’s National Health Commission did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

The country has approved nine domestically developed COVID vaccines for use, all of which are believed to be less effective than Western-made vaccines that use the new mRNA technology.

A shipment of 11,500 BioNTech mRNA vaccines for German nationals in China has arrived at the German embassy in Beijing, an embassy spokesman told Reuters on Friday.

The embassy hopes the first doses will be distributed “as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.

As COVID rages in China, residents who previously endured long periods of isolation are now learning to live with the virus.

Chinese teacher Yang Zengdong, whose entire family is isolating in their apartment in downtown Shanghai and is mildly ill with COVID, welcomes the policy change. Just a few weeks ago they would all have been sent to a quarantine facility and their building locked down.

“When I think about this situation, my feeling is, wow, we’re so lucky because we can isolate at home now,” Yang said.

“We have to face this wave because it is impossible to remain closed forever.”

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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