China expands hospitals and intensive care units amid COVID surge


BEIJING — Faced with a surge in COVID-19 cases, China is setting up more critical care facilities and trying to bolster hospitals, while Beijing is rolling back anti-virus controls that have locked millions in their homes, squashed economic growth and sparked protests.

President Xi Jinping’s government has officially pledged to halt virus transmission, the latest major country to attempt this. However, recent moves suggest that the ruling Communist Party will tolerate more cases without quarantine or closures of travel or businesses as it ends its “zero-COVID” strategy.

According to state media, a cabinet meeting on Thursday called for the “full mobilization” of hospitals, including increasing staff to ensure their “combat effectiveness” and increasing drug supplies. Officials have been told to keep an eye on the health of everyone in their area aged 65 and over.

It’s not clear how much infection numbers have risen since Beijing ended mandatory up to once-daily testing in many areas last week. But interviews and social media accounts say there are outbreaks in businesses and schools across the country. Some restaurants and other businesses have closed because too many employees are ill.

The virus testing center in Beijing’s Runfeng Shuishang district was closed because all of its employees were infected, the neighborhood government said on its social media account on Saturday. “Please be patient,” he said.

Official case numbers are falling, but these no longer cover large parts of the population after mandatory testing ended in many areas on Wednesday. This was part of dramatic changes that confirmed Beijing was trying to join the United States and other governments in ending travel and other restrictions and trying to live with the virus.

On Sunday, the government reported 10,815 new cases, including 8,477 without symptoms. That was barely a quarter of the previous week’s daily high of over 40,000, but only represents people being tested after being admitted to hospitals or for jobs in schools and other higher-risk places.

Western Shaanxi Province has reserved 22,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 and is poised to increase its ICU capacity by 20% by converting other beds, Shanghai news agency The Paper reported, citing Yun Chunfu, an official with the Health Commission province . Yun said cities are “accelerating the modernization” of hospitals for “severely ill patients.”

“Each city must designate a hospital with strong overall strength and high level of treatment” for COVID-19 cases, Yu was quoted as saying at a news conference.

China has 138,000 intensive care beds, director-general of the Bureau of Medical Administration of the National Health Commission, Jiao Yahui, said at a news conference on Friday. That is less than one in 10,000 inhabitants.

Health resources are unequally distributed. Hospital beds are concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities on the affluent east coast. Thursday’s cabinet statement called on officials to ensure rural areas have “fair access” to treatment and medicines.

China’s controls kept its infection rate down but smashed already weak economic growth and prompted complaints about rising human costs. The official death toll is 5,235, compared to 1.1 million in the United States.

China’s official total of 363,072 cases has risen nearly 50% from the Oct. 1 level, following a series of outbreaks across the country.

Protests erupted on November 25 after a fire killed 10 people in northwest Urumqi. Netizens questioned whether firefighters or escape attempts were blocked by locked doors or other antivirus measures. Authorities denied this, but the disaster became a focus of public anger.

The Xi government pledged to cut costs and disruptions after the economy shrank 2.6% qoq in the three months to June. That was after Shanghai and other industrial hubs shut down for up to two months to combat outbreaks.

Forecasts say the economy is likely to contract in the current quarter. Imports fell 10.9% yoy in November, indicating weak demand. Some forecasters have lowered their forecast for annual growth to below 3%, less than half of last year’s robust 8.1% expansion.

It’s not clear if any of the changes were in response to the protests.

In a show of official confidence, Chairman No. 2 Premier Li Keqiang was shown without masks at a state media meeting with leaders of the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions last week in the eastern city of Huangshan. Earlier, during a summit in Uzbekistan in September, when the others did not wear masks, Xi skipped a photo session with Russian and Central Asian leaders.

Still, health experts and economists say “zero-COVID” is likely to persist at least until mid-2023, as millions of older people need to be vaccinated before restrictions keeping most visitors out of China are lifted. The government launched a campaign to vaccinate the elderly last week, a process that could take months.

Experts warn the ruling party still has the option to reverse course and reintroduce restrictions amid fears hospitals could be overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, experts quoted by state media urged the public to ease the burden on hospitals by treating mild COVID-19 cases at home and postponing treatment for less serious problems.

Patients queue for up to six hours to get to fever clinics. Social media accounts say some hospitals are turning away patients with problems deemed not severe enough to warrant urgent treatment.

“Going to the hospital blind” drains resources and could delay treatment of severe cases, “leading to a serious risk,” vice president of Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai, Chen Erzhen, told The Paper.

“We recommend trying to manage health at home,” Chen said. “Leave medical resources for people who really need treatment.”