News China races to install hospital beds as COVID surge sparks concern abroad

  • Authorities rush to add hospital beds, set up fever clinics
  • U.S. expresses concern over potential for COVID mutation
  • Beijing reports 5 new deaths on Tuesday
  • Crematorium under tight security amid doubts over death toll

BEIJING/WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Cities across China scrambled to install hospital beds and set up fever-screening clinics on Tuesday as the United States said Beijing’s surprise decision to let the virus spread freely was a concern for the world.

China began lifting its strict “zero COVID” mass lockdown regime this month after protests that containment measures had largely halted the spread of the virus for three years, but at enormous cost to society and the world’s second-largest economy.

Now, as the virus sweeps through a country of 1.4 billion people who lack natural immunity and have long been protected, fears are mounting over possible deaths, virus mutations and the impact on the economy and trade.

“We know that as long as the virus is circulating, it’s out in the wild and has the potential to mutate and pose a threat to people around the world,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday. China’s growth is also global growth of a concern.

Beijing reported five COVID-related deaths on Tuesday and two on Monday, the first reported deaths in weeks. Since the pandemic emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, China has reported a total of 5,242 COVID deaths, very low by global standards.

But doubts are growing whether those statistics reflect the full impact of the disease-ravaged city after China lifted restrictions that included most mandatory testing on Dec. 7.

Since then, some hospitals have been overcrowded, pharmacies have been sold out of medicines, while many people have locked down themselves and delivery services have been overwhelmed.

“It’s a bit of a burden to suddenly reopen when the supply of medicines is not well prepared,” said Zhang, a 31-year-old courier in Beijing, who declined to give his full name. “But I support reopening.”

Some health experts estimate that 60% of China’s population (equivalent to 10% of the world’s population) could become infected and more than 2 million people could die in the next few months.

In the capital Beijing, security guards patrolled the entrances to designated COVID-19 crematoria, where a Reuters reporter on Saturday saw a long line of hearses and staff in protective gear carrying the dead inside. Reuters could not determine whether the death was due to COVID.

‘I got sick’

In Beijing, which has become a major infection hotspot, many commuters coughed into masks as they returned to trains to work, and streets came alive after being largely empty last week.

On the streets of Shanghai, where the spread of COVID is catching up to Beijing, the streets are empty and subway trains are only half full.

“People stay away because they’re sick, or they’re afraid of getting sick, but mostly now, I think it’s because they’re really sick,” said Yang, a trainer at a nearly empty gym in Shanghai.

In recent weeks, top health officials have softened their tone about the threat posed by the disease, a sharp departure from previous messages that the virus must be eradicated to save lives even as the rest of the world opens up.

They have also been downplaying the possibility that the now dominant Omicron strain could become more deadly.

“The possibility of a sudden large mutation … is very low,” Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease expert, said in a commentary on a forum reported by state media on Sunday.

Still, there are growing signs that the virus is hitting China’s fragile health system.

Cities are stepping up efforts to expand intensive care units and other facilities to treat severe COVID cases, the state-run Global Times reported on Monday.

Authorities have also been racing to build so-called fever clinics, where medical staff can check patients for symptoms and administer medicines. Often attached to hospitals, these clinics are common in mainland China and are designed to prevent the wider spread of infectious diseases within hospitals.

Over the past week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou have announced the addition of hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports facilities.

The virus has also hit China’s economy, which is expected to grow 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century. Economists say sick workers and truck drivers are slowing production and disrupting logistics.

China’s business confidence fell to its lowest level since January 2013 in December, a world economic survey showed on Monday.

Weak industrial activity in the world’s largest oil importer limited gains in crude prices and pushed copper prices lower.

China left its benchmark lending rate unchanged for the fourth straight month on Tuesday.

Reporting by Bernard Orr and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing, David Stanway in Shanghai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by John Geddie and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Bersell

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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