BAZHOU, China (AP) — Yao Ruyan paced frantically outside a fever clinic at a county hospital in China’s industrial Hebei Province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law has COVID-19 and needs urgent medical care, but all the nearby hospitals are overwhelmed.
“They say there are no beds here,” she yells into her phone.
As China grapples with its first-ever nationwide wave of COVID-19, The emergency wards in small towns southwest of Beijing were overwhelmed. Intensive care units are turning away ambulances, relatives of patients are searching for empty beds, and patients are slumped on benches in hospital corridors or lying on the floor for lack of beds.
The Yao family’s elderly mother-in-law contracted the coronavirus a week ago. They first went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia. But Yao was told the hospital was unable to handle COVID-19 cases. She was told to go to a larger hospital in a neighboring county.
When Yao and her husband drove from one hospital to another, they found that all the wards were full. Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s home, was the latest disappointment.
Yao rushed to the check-in counter, frantically transporting elderly patients past wheelchairs. Again, she was told the hospital was full and she had to wait.
“I’m angry,” Yao said, tears streaming down his face as he held scans of lungs from a local hospital in his hand. “I don’t have much hope. We’ve been out for a long time and I’m terrified because she’s having trouble breathing.”
Over two days, AP reporters visited five hospitals and two crematoria in towns and small cities in the Baoding and Langfang regions of central Hebei province.The region was the epicenter of one of China’s first outbreaks after the country eased controls on COVID-19 in November and December. For weeks, the area went quiet as people got sick and stayed home.
Many have now recovered. Today, markets are bustling, diners are filling restaurants and cars are honking in the cacophony of traffic, even as the virus spreads in other parts of China.In recent days, headlines in state media have said the region is “beginning to return to normal life”.“
But life in emergency rooms and crematoria in central Hebei is anything but normal. While young people are returning to work and queues at fever clinics are shrinking, many elderly people in Hebei are dying.As they take over ICUs and funeral homes, it could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of China.
The Chinese government has reported just seven COVID-19 deaths since restrictions were eased sharply on Dec. 7, bringing the country’s total to 5,241.On Tuesday, a Chinese health official said China was only counting deaths Pneumonia or respiratory failure in the official COVID-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that have been attributed to COVID-19 elsewhere.
Experts predict 1-2 million deaths in China next year, WHO warns Beijing’s counting methods would “underestimate the true death toll”.
Patients filled the corridors of the emergency room at Baoding Second Hospital in Zhuozhou city on Wednesday. The patient breathes with the help of a respirator. A woman cried bitterly after doctors told her a loved one had died.
The ICU was so overcrowded that ambulances were turned away. A medical worker yells at a relative of a patient who is wheeled from an arriving ambulance.
“There is no oxygen and no electricity in this corridor!” exclaimed the worker. “You don’t even give him oxygen, how can you save him?”
“If you don’t want to delay, turn around and get out!” she said.
Relatives left to carry the patient back to the ambulance. It took off and the lights flickered.
During the two-day drive in the area, Associated Press reporters passed about three dozen ambulances. On a highway leading to Beijing, two ambulances followed, lights flashing, as a third drove by in the opposite direction. Dispatchers were overwhelmed, and earlier this month Beijing city officials reported a sixfold spike in emergency calls.
Some ambulances are heading to the funeral home. At the Zhuozhou crematorium, furnaces have been burning overtime as workers grapple with a spike in deaths over the past week, according to an employee. One funeral home worker estimated that 20 to 30 bodies are being burned each day, up from three to four before the relaxation of COVID-19 measures.
“So many people died,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral supply store near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they can’t burn them all.”
At Gaobeidian Crematorium, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Zhuozhou, the body of an 82-year-old woman was reportedly brought in from Beijing, a two-hour drive because funeral homes in the Chinese capital were overcrowded. The woman’s grandson, Liang.
“They said we had to wait 10 days,” said Liang, who gave only his last name because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Liang’s grandmother was not vaccinated when she showed symptoms of the coronavirus, Liang added, and she spent her final days on a ventilator in an intensive care unit in Beijing.
For more than two hours Thursday at the Gaobeidian crematorium, AP reporters observed three ambulances and two vans unloading bodies. About a hundred people huddled together, some in traditional Chinese white mourning clothes. They burn funeral paper and set off fireworks.
“It’s already a lot!” said a staff member when asked about the death toll from COVID-19, before funeral director Ma Xiaowei stepped in and brought reporters to a meeting with local government officials.
When the official tuned in, Ma confirmed there were more cremations, but said he didn’t know if COVID-19 was involved. He blamed the extra deaths on the onset of winter.
“Every year this season, there are more,” Ma said. He said “the pandemic doesn’t really show up” in the death toll, and the official listened and nodded.
While anecdotal evidence and models suggest large numbers of people are being infected and dying, some Hebei officials have denied that the virus has had much impact.
“There is no so-called outbreak of cases, and everything is under control,” Wang Ping, the administrative head of Gaobeidian Hospital, said by the hospital’s gate. “Patients are down slightly.”
Only one-sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, Wang said, but refused to let AP reporters in. Within half an hour of AP reporters being there, two ambulances arrived at the hospital, and a relative of a patient told The Associated Press they were turned away because the Gaobeidian emergency ward was full.
In the town of Baigou, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south, Sun Yana, an emergency room doctor, is so candid that even local officials listen in.
“There are more people with fever, and the number of patients has indeed increased,” Sun said. She hesitated, then added: “I can’t say if it’s busier. Our emergency room is always busy.”
Baigou New District Aerospace Hospital is quiet and orderly, with empty beds, nurses spraying disinfectant, and short queues. COVID-19 patients are separated from other patients to prevent cross-infection, staff said. But they added that severe cases were being transferred to hospitals in major cities due to limited medical equipment.
In Baigou, a city of about 60,000 residents, insufficient ICU capacity reflects a nationwide problem. According to experts, medical resources in villages and towns, where about 500 million of China’s 1.4 billion people live, lag far behind those in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Some counties do not have single ICU beds.
As a result, critically ill patients were forced to travel to larger cities for treatment. More than a hundred people packed the emergency room of Langfang Fourth People’s Hospital in Bazhou, 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Baigou, on Thursday night.
Guards struggled to control the crowd as people jostled for position. There was no space in the wards, and patients flooded corridors and corridors. Staff frantically pushed gurneys and ventilators, and patients lay on blankets on the floor. In the hallway, six patients sat on metal benches panting as oxygen tanks pumped air into their noses.
Outside a CT scan room, a woman sitting on a bench gasps as snot trickles from her nostrils onto crumpled tissues. A man lies on a stretcher outside an emergency room as paramedics place electrodes on his chest. At the check-in counter, a young man held her hand, and a woman sat on a stool panting heavily.
“Everyone in my family has coronavirus,” a man asked at the counter as four others shouted for attention behind him. “What medicine can we get?”
In the corridor, a man yelled into his cell phone as he walked.
“The numbers exploded!” he said. “You can’t be cared for here, there are too many people.”
It is unclear how many patients have COVID-19.Some have only mild symptoms, which speaks to another problem, experts say: Chinese rely more on hospitals This means that emergency medical resources are more likely to be overloaded than in other countries.
For more than two hours, Associated Press reporters witnessed six or more ambulances parked in the hospital’s intensive care unit, sprinting to other hospitals with critically ill patients, while cars pulled up with dozens more new patient.
A beige van parked in front of the ICU, honking frantically at waiting ambulances. “Move!” shouted the driver.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” cried a panicked voice. Five men lifted a man wrapped in blankets from the back of the van and took him to hospital. Security guards yelled in the crowded ward: “Make way, make way!”
The guard told a patient to walk away, but backed down when a relative yelled at him. The bound man instead lay on the floor as doctors ran back and forth. “Grandpa!” A woman cried and squatted beside the patient.
Paramedics rush through ventilators. “Can you open his mouth?” someone yelled.
His breathing became easier as the white plastic tube was placed over his face.
Others were not so lucky. As one elderly woman’s vital signs stabilized, relatives gathered around another hospital bed began to burst into tears. A man covers the woman’s face with a cloth, and they stand in silence until her body is wheeled away. Within minutes, another patient took her place.