Full intensive care units, overcrowded crematoria: COVID overwhelms Chinese cities

Yao Ruyan frantically paced in front of the fever clinic of a district hospital in China’s industrial province of Hebei, 70 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law had COVID and needed urgent medical care, but all the nearby hospitals were full.

“They say there are no beds here,” she barked into her phone.

As China grapples with its first-ever national wave of COVID, emergency departments in small towns southwest of Beijing are overwhelmed. Intensive care units turn away ambulances, relatives of sick people search for free beds, and patients are slumped on benches in hospital corridors and lie on the floor for lack of beds.

Yao’s elderly mother-in-law became ill a week ago. They first went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia. But the hospital cannot treat COVID cases, Yao was told. She was told to go to hospitals in adjacent counties.

As Yao and her husband went from hospital to hospital, they found that all the wards were full. Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown, was the latest disappointment.

“I’m angry,” Yao said, bursting into tears as she clutched the lung scans from the local hospital. “I don’t have much hope. We’ve been out late and I’m very scared because she’s having trouble breathing.”

Over two days, AP journalists visited five hospitals and two crematoria in towns and cities in Baoding and Langfang prefectures in central Hebei province. The area was the epicenter of one of China’s first outbreaks after the state eased COVID controls in November and December. For weeks it was quiet in the region, people got sick and stayed at home.

Many have since recovered. Today markets are bustling, restaurants crowding restaurants and cars honking in angry traffic as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, state media headlines have said that the area is “starting to resume normal life”.

But life in the emergency rooms and crematoria in central Hebei is anything but normal. Even as the young go back to work and lines at fever clinics shrink, many of Hebei’s elderly are in critical condition. It could be a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of China.

The Chinese government has reported just seven COVID deaths since restrictions were eased dramatically on December 27. 7, bringing the country’s total toll to 5,241. On Tuesday, a Chinese health official said China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll.

Experts have forecast between one and two million deaths in China next year, and the World Health Organization warned that Beijing’s counting would “underestimate the true death toll”.

At Baoding No. 2 Hospital in Zhuozhou, Wednesday, patients crowded the emergency room corridor. The patients breathed with the help of ventilators. A woman wailed after doctors told her a loved one had died.

At the Zhuozhou crematorium, ovens are burning overtime as workers struggle to cope with a spike in deaths over the past week, according to an employee. A funeral home worker estimated it cremates 20 to 30 bodies a day, down from three to four before COVID lockdowns were eased.

“So many people have died,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral supplies store near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they cannot burn them all.”

For more than two hours Thursday, AP journalists watched three ambulances and two vans unload bodies at the Gaobeidian crematorium.

“A lot has happened!” said one worker when asked about the number of COVID-related deaths, before undertaker Ma Xiaowei stepped in and brought the journalists to a meeting with a local government official.

As the officer listened, Ma confirmed there were other cremations but said he didn’t know if COVID was involved. He blamed the additional deaths on the arrival of winter.

But even as anecdotal evidence and models suggest large numbers of people are becoming infected and dying, some Hebei officials dispute that the virus has had a major impact.

“There is no so-called explosion in cases, everything is under control,” said Wang Ping, administrative head of Gaobeidian Hospital, at the hospital’s main gate.

Wang said only a sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, but refused to allow AP journalists entry. During the half-hour that AP journalists were present, two ambulances arrived at the hospital, and a patient’s relative told the AP they were turned away from Gaobeidian’s emergency room because it was full.

In Bazhou, a city 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Gaobeidian, a hundred or more people packed the emergency room of Langfang No. 4 People’s Hospital on Thursday evening.

Guards worked to contain the crowd as people jostled for positions. Since there was no more space on the ward, patients poured into the corridors and hallways. Sick people lay on blankets on the floor while staff frantically wheeled around stretchers and ventilators. In a hallway, half a dozen patients panted on metal benches while oxygen tanks pumped air into their noses.

Within two hours, AP journalists saw half a dozen or more ambulances pull up to the hospital’s intensive care unit, inviting critical patients to sprint to other hospitals even as cars pulled up with dozens of new patients.

A beige van pulled up in front of the ICU and frantically honked at a waiting ambulance. “Move!” shouted the driver.

“Here we go!” shouted a panicked voice. Five people pulled a man wrapped in blankets from the back of the van and took him to the hospital.

The guard asked a patient to move but backed away when a relative growled at him. The wrapped man was instead placed on the ground amid doctors pacing back and forth.

Medical personnel rushed on a ventilator. “Can you open his mouth?” someone called.

When white plastic tubes were placed over his face, the man began to breathe more easily.

Others weren’t so lucky. Relatives surrounding another bed began to cry as an elderly woman’s vitals fell flat. A man pulled a cloth over the woman’s face and they stood in silence before her body was rolled away. Within minutes another patient had taken her place.

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