China’s COVID cases overwhelm hospitals

BEIJING, Dec 26 (Reuters) – In more than three decades of emergency medicine, Beijing-based doctor Howard Bernstein said he had never seen anything like it.

Patients arrive at his hospital in increasing numbers; almost all are elderly and many are very unwell with symptoms of COVID and pneumonia, he said.

Bernstein’s account echoes similar testimony from medical personnel in China who are struggling to cope after China’s sharp reversal of its previous strict policies against COVID this month was followed by a nationwide wave of infections.

It is the country’s largest outbreak since the pandemic began in the central city of Wuhan three years ago. Beijing’s state-run hospitals and crematoria are also struggling this month amid high demand.

“The hospital is just overwhelmed from top to bottom,” Bernstein told Reuters at the end of a “stressful” shift at the private Beijing United Family Hospital in the capital’s east.

“The intensive care unit is full,” as are the emergency room, the fever clinic and other departments, he said.

“Many of them were admitted to the hospital. They don’t get better for a day or two, so there’s no flow, and so people keep coming to the emergency room, but they can’t go upstairs to the hospital rooms,” he said. “They’ve been stuck in the ER for days.”

Over the past month, Bernstein has gone from never treating a COVID patient to seeing dozens a day.

“The biggest challenge, honestly, is I think we just weren’t prepared for it,” he said.

Sonja Uthard-Bureau, 48, chief medical officer at the private Raffles Hospital in Beijing, said the number of patients was five to six times above normal levels and the average age of patients had risen by about 40 years to over 70. for a period of time. a week.

“It’s always the same profile,” she said. “That is, most patients are not vaccinated.

Patients and their relatives visit Raffles because local hospitals are “overstretched,” she said, and because they want to buy Paxlovid, the Pfizer-made COVID treatment that many places, including Raffles, are running low on.

“They want the drug as a replacement for the vaccine, but the drug does not replace the vaccine,” said Uthard-Bureau, adding that there are strict criteria for when her team can prescribe it.

An employee works on the production line of an anti-fever drug at a rescue plant in Guizhou amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in Anshun, Guizhou province, December 24, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS

Juthard-Bureau, who like Bernstein has been working in China for about a decade, fears the worst of this wave in Beijing is yet to arrive.

Elsewhere in China, medical staff told Reuters that resources were already stretched to the breaking point in some cases as levels of COVID and illness among staff were particularly high.

A nurse based in the western city of Xi’an said 45 of the 51 nurses in her ward and all emergency room staff had caught the virus in recent weeks.

“There are so many positive cases among my colleagues,” said the 22-year-old nurse, surnamed Wang. “Almost all doctors agree with that.”

Wang and nurses at other hospitals said they were told to report for duty even if they tested positive and had a mild fever.

Jiang, a 29-year-old psychiatric ward nurse at a hospital in Hubei province, said staff attendance has dropped by more than 50 percent at her ward, which has stopped accepting new patients. She said she was working shifts of more than 16 hours with insufficient support.

“My concern is that if the patient seems agitated, you have to restrain them, but you can’t easily do it yourself,” she said. “Not a great situation to find.”


Doctors who spoke to Reuters said they were most worried about the elderly, tens of thousands of whom experts estimate could die.

More than 5,000 people are likely to die each day from COVID-19 in ChinaUK-based health data firm Airfinity calculated, offering a dramatic contrast to official data from Beijing on the country’s current outbreak.

The National Health Commission did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the concerns raised by medical staff in this article.

China reported no deaths from COVID on the mainland in the six days to Sunday, China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday, even as crematoriums face rising demand.

China has narrowed its definition of classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-related pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among global health experts.

“It’s not medicine, it’s politics,” Uthardt-Bureau said. “If they’re dying of COVID now, it’s because of COVID. Mortality is now a political figure, not a medical one.”

Additional reporting from Beijing Newsroom. Editing by Gerry Doyle

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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