China has experienced its largest pandemic outbreak since relaxing its “zero Covid” restrictions earlier this month in response to unprecedented nationwide protests.
Simultaneously, mass testing has been discontinued as Chinese authorities changed their criteria for counting cases and COVID-19 deaths, making a clear picture of the state of coronavirus in China elusive.
Cases have been officially dropping in China, with only 2,966 symptomatic infections on Wednesday, with no longer including asymptomatic cases in their count. Cases peaked at around 40,000 per day earlier this month, but only 10 official COVID deaths have been reported since the beginning of December.
The congested streets around Beijing’s busy funeral homes, on the other hand, do not appear to match the official toll.
PHOTO: A delivery driver organizes packages in the street that are part of a backlog due to COVID-19 outbreaks outside a depot on Dec. 21, 2022 in Beijing, China.
On December 21, 2022, a delivery driver organizes packages in the street that are part of a backlog caused by COVID-19 outbreaks outside a depot in Beijing, China.
Getty Images/Kevin Frayer
Ambulances, hearses and vans lined the streets outside two of the main crematoriums in Beijing.
Another worker, Li, told ABC News’ partners at TVBS News that the funeral home had run out of freezers to store the bodies.
“Any new remains would be cremated immediately,” Li said. “If there are too many, they must be placed on the floor to wait.”
In recent days, Chinese health authorities clarified that they will now use strict criteria to classify a case as a COVID-19-related death.
“Deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure caused by the novel coronavirus are classified as COVID-19 infection deaths,” Wang Guiqiang, director of the Infectious Diseases Department at Peking University First Hospital, told the media earlier this week at a government press conference. “Deaths caused by other diseases and basic diseases… are not classified as COVID-19 deaths.”
Despite the low official count, authorities have admitted that various sub-variants of Omicron are rapidly spreading throughout China. Over the weekend, Shanghai-based medical expert Zhang Wenhong told an online forum that the reproductive number in China is 16-18, implying that one positive patient can infect up to 18 others.
The streets around Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital were quiet Thursday in below-freezing temperatures, but ABC News saw packed halls in the emergency clinic, with some patients on makeshift beds in the corridors. The fever clinic at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in northeastern Beijing has been open 24 hours a day, and ABC News reported that the ward was nearly full, with the majority of patients being seniors.
Similar scenes are playing out across the country.
A nurse in the pediatric department of one of Chongqing’s three main hospitals told ABC News that her department is at capacity, full of children with high fevers. The nurse, who did not want her name used because she is not authorized to speak, stated that parents are bringing their children to the hospital because they do not have fever medicine at home. They, like many others, were caught off guard by China’s abrupt shift in COVID policies.