China said on Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospital since abandoning its zero-covid-19 policy last month, a huge increase from previously reported figures that followed global criticism of the data about the coronavirus in the country.
In early December, Beijing abruptly lifted its strict three-year anti-virus regime of frequent testing, travel restrictions and mass lockdowns after widespread protests in late November, and cases have soared in the nation of 1.4 billion since then.
A health official said Saturday that the COVID fever and emergency hospitalizations had peaked and the number of hospitalized patients continued to decline.
Between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12, the number of COVID-related deaths in Chinese hospitals totaled 59,938, Jiao Yahui, head of the National Health Commission’s (NHC) Medical Administration Bureau, told a media briefing.
Of those deaths, 5,503 were caused by respiratory failure due to COVID, and the rest resulted from a combination of COVID and other illnesses, she said.
The World Health Organization, which earlier this week said China was grossly underreporting deaths from the virus and called for more information, on Saturday welcomed Beijing’s announcement while renewing its request for more detailed data.
The UN agency said its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had spoken with Ma Xiaowei, director of China’s National Health Commission, about the latest outbreak, which the WHO said was similar to those seen in other countries.
“Reported figures show a decline in the number of cases, hospitalizations and those requiring critical care,” Beijing said in a commentary on the numbers.
While international health experts 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 have been reporting five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, figures that don’t match the long lines seen at funeral homes and the body bags seen leaving crowded hospitals.
China, which last reported daily data on COVID-19 deaths on Monday, has repeatedly defended the veracity of its disease figures.
On Saturday, Jiao said that China is dividing COVID-related deaths into those from respiratory failure due to the coronavirus infection and those from the underlying disease combined with the infection.
“The standard is basically in line with those 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 caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID would be classified as COVID deaths. Heart attacks or cardiovascular disease causing the death of infected people would not receive this classification.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on International Affairs in New York, said the tenfold increase in deaths announced on Saturday suggested that China’s reversal of COVID policy was “really linked to” a sharp increase in severe cases and deaths, especially among older people.
However, he said, it’s unclear whether the new figures accurately reflect actual deaths because doctors have been discouraged from reporting COVID-related deaths and the numbers only include deaths in hospitals.
“In the province, for example, many elderly people died at home but were not tested for COVID due to lack of access to testing kits or their reluctance to get tested,” he said.
Jiao, a Chinese health official, said the number of patients needing emergency treatment is falling, and the proportion of patients at fever clinics who have tested positive for COVID-19 has also steadily declined. The number of severe cases has also peaked, she added, although they remain high and patients are mostly elderly.
Officials said China will boost the supply of medicine and medical equipment to rural areas and boost training for frontline medical personnel in those regions.
“The number of visitors to fever clinics has generally been on a downward trend after peaking, both in urban and rural areas,” Jiao said.
A sharp increase in travel ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions return home from cities to small towns and rural areas, has fueled concerns that it will lead to a spike in cases during the holiday, which begins on January 21.
This week the WHO warned of the risks arising from holiday travel. China reopened its borders on January 8.
Despite concerns about infections, China’s air passenger volume has rebounded to 63 percent of 2019 levels since the annual travel season began on Jan. 7, the industry regulator said on Friday.
The Department of Transport is forecasting passenger traffic volumes to jump 99.5% year-on-year during the festival migration, which runs until February 15, or a recovery to 70.3% of 2019 levels.
In China’s gambling hub Macau, 46,000 daily commuters on Friday were the highest number since the start of the pandemic, most from the mainland, the city government said. A spring festival boom in tourism is expected.