SHANGHAI: A senior doctor at one of Shanghai’s top hospitals has said 70 percent of the megacity’s population may have been infected with the coronavirus during China’s huge surge in cases, state media reported on Tuesday.
The steep rise in infections came after years of hardline restrictions were abruptly relaxed last month with little warning or preparation, and quickly overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums.
Chen Erzhen, vice president of Ruijin Hospital and a member of Shanghai’s Covid-19 expert advisory panel, estimated that the majority of the eastern Chinese city’s 25 million people may have been infected.
“Now the spread of the epidemic in Shanghai is very wide, and it may have reached 70 percent of the population, which is 20 to 30 times more than [in April and May],” he told Dajiangdong Studio, owned by the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
Shanghai endured a grueling two-month lockdown in April, during which over 600,000 residents were infected and many were hauled to mass quarantine centers. But now the coronavirus’ Omicron variant is spreading rampantly across the city.
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In other major cities, including the capital Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Guangzhou, Chinese health officials have suggested that the wave has already peaked.
In neighboring Zhejiang province, disease control authorities said on Tuesday there had been 1 million new infections in recent days and that the province was entering a peak plateau for Covid.
Chen said his hospital was seeing 1,600 emergency admissions daily — double the number prior to restrictions being lifted — with 80 percent of them Covid patients.
“More than 100 ambulances arrive at the hospital every day,” he was quoted as saying, adding that about half of emergency admissions were vulnerable people ages over 65.
At Tongren Hospital in downtown Shanghai, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporters saw patients receiving emergency medical attention outside the entrance of the overcrowded emergency ward on Tuesday.
The corridors overflowed with dozens of elderly patients lying on beds crammed together, hooked up to intravenous drips. Some patients wore oxygen masks attached to bedside canisters.
Chinese officials are preparing for a virus wave to hit China’s underresourced rural interior, as millions of people prepare to travel back to their hometowns for the weeklong Lunar New Year public holiday beginning on January 21.
In an interview with state-run China Central Television on Monday, National Health Commission (NHC) official Jiao Yahui admitted that dealing with the expected peak in rural areas would be an “enormous challenge.”
“What we are most worried about is, in the past three years, nobody has returned home for [the] Lunar New Year, but they finally can this year,” Jiao said. “As a result, there may be a retaliatory surge of urban residents into the countryside to visit their relatives, so we are even more worried about the rural epidemic.”
She also acknowledged the pressure on hospital emergency departments and promised that the authorities would coordinate medical resources to ensure the treatment of patients in underfunded areas.
Meanwhile, about a dozen countries have imposed Covid testing restrictions on passengers from China after Beijing announced its borders would reopen on January 8.
Countries including the United States have also cited Beijing’s lack of transparency around infection data and the risk of new variants as a reason to restrict travelers.
China has only recorded 22 Covid deaths since December and has dramatically narrowed the criteria for classifying such deaths.
But Jiao told reporters on Thursday that China had always published data “on Covid-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency.”
“China has always been committed to the scientific criteria for judging Covid-19 deaths, from beginning to end, which are in line with the international criteria,” Jiao said.