Accessibility links

Breaking News

Top China Health Official Says COVID Deaths Increasing in 'Normal' Range

Patients lie on beds in a hallway in the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2023.
Patients lie on beds in a hallway in the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2023.

A top health official in China has said that the fatalities from the latest surge in COVID-19 cases are “increasing” but within the normal range for mortality.

In an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), Jiao Yahui, a National Health Commission official, said, “We have a huge base, so what people feel is that the severe cases, the critical cases or the fatalities are increasing.

“Relative to the rest of the world, the infection peaks we are faced with across the country are not unusual,” she added.

The contrast between statements by Chinese officials assessing the COVID situation and social media footage of crowded hospital hallways and long lines at clinics prompted leading scientists advising the World Health Organization to call Tuesday for a “more realistic picture” about what China is experiencing after the pivot from “zero-COVID.”

Normal mortality is the number of deaths authorities expect for a specific period based on long-term population data. Excess mortality reveals the difference between the number of deaths caused during the current wave of COVID and the number of fatalities expected had the pandemic not occurred. The excess mortality number has been used worldwide during the pandemic to provide a better sense of how many people have died of COVID.

Tong Zhaohui, vice president of Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, agreed that while the actual number of deaths is growing, the fatalities remain a small percentage of China’s population.

“Think how many people around you have been infected but how many have developed critical cases or pneumonia? I think everyone has the idea,” he told CCTV.

China began relaxing its stringent zero-COVID policy in early December. Since then, Tong has supervised treatment for critically ill COVID patients at two major hospitals in Beijing.

Tong said, “I roughly counted, both severe and critical cases (of COVID) at the two designated hospitals accounted for 3% to 4% of infected patients.” He added that the actual number can’t be determined because PCR testing is no longer mandatory.

Beijing reported three new COVID deaths for Monday, taking the official death toll to 5,253 since the pandemic began in January 2020. China’s population was over 1.4 billion people in 2021.

CCTV’s coverage acknowledged that the number of fever outpatients in some hospitals increased tenfold, and one doctor saw up to 150 patients in one night. A fever patient cannot be assumed to be a COVID patient.

Patients lie on beds in a waiting area in the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2023.
Patients lie on beds in a waiting area in the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2023.

Photos and videos of hospitals full of sick people waiting to be treated are circulating on social media from facilities across the country. Reuters visited a Shanghai hospital and reported finding crowded hallways and emergency rooms. China's censors are moving quickly to keep photos and videos from circulating inside the country, but many are leaping the country's Great Firewall for the internet and posting photos and videos that were said to be from hospitals in China’s central and southern Hunan province as well as other cities.

Although VOA Mandarin was unable to independently verify the videos circulating on Twitter that are said to show hospitals in Hunan, a staffer who answered the phone at Changsha No. 1 People’s Hospital in Changsha, the province's capital, said the hospital has no vacant beds left and new patients are being asked to go to other hospitals. According to Baike, China's version of Wikipedia, the hospital has a total capacity of 1,593 beds. The staffer said that while many doctors have tested positive, they are still working.

Social media videos from various cities show long lines waiting to be admitted outside crematoriums.

In an interview with Da Jiangdong Studio, an affiliate of the state-run newspaper People's Daily, Chen Erzhen, vice president of Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital and a member of the city’s COVID expert advisory panel, estimated that 70% of population of 25 million people in Shanghai may have been infected. The interview was conducted December 31 and published Tuesday.

"Now the spread of the epidemic in Shanghai is very wide, and it may have reached 70% of the population, which is 20 to 30 times more than (in April and May)," he told Da Jiangdong Studio. Shanghai endured a two-month long lockdown in April and May, during which over 600,000 residents were infected and already weakened global supply chains were further strained.

China could see as many as 25,000 deaths a day from COVID later in January, according to a Bloomberg report.

That daily total is “roughly equivalent to China’s normal daily death toll from all other causes,” according to The British Medical Journal referencing research published December 20 from Airfinity, a London-based research firm that focuses on predictive health analytics.

Mortalities from the contagious respiratory illness will probably peak around January 23, the second day of the annual new year holiday, according Airfinity.

China said it had submitted genome sequence data from recently sampled COVID-19 cases to GISAID, an international database hosted by Germany, ahead of a meeting with WHO officials on Tuesday.

Before the meeting, Reuters reported that two unnamed scientists affiliated with WHO had asked Beijing for a “more realistic picture” of COVID in China.

Some experts doubted that Beijing would be forthright in its statistical offerings.

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, told Reuters, “I don't think China will be very sincere in disclosing information.”

“They would rather just keep it to themselves, or they would say nothing happened, nothing is new,” said Wu. “My own sense is that we could assume that there is nothing new ... but the problem is China’s transparency issue is always there.”