Cities in China began distributing free anti-fever drugs to the public, as COVID-19 sweeps through the world’s most populous country largely unchecked for the first time after an abrupt shift in the country’s containment policies.
After widespread protests and a relentless rise in cases, China this month began dismantling its “zero-COVID” regime.
Still, the country’s official death toll since the pandemic began in early 2020 stands at 5,241 - a fraction of what much less populous countries faced.
China reported no new COVID deaths for a second consecutive day for December 21, even as funeral parlor workers say demand and waiting time for their services has gone up in the past week, pushing fees higher. The country confirmed 389,306 cases with symptoms as of Tuesday.
But experts say official figures have become an unreliable guide as less testing is being done across China following the recent easing of restrictions.
The Shanghai Deji Hospital, posting on its official WeChat account, estimated there were about 5.43 million positives in the city and that half of the 25 million people in China’s main commercial hub will get infected by the end of the year.
“This year’s Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and the Lunar New Year are destined to be unsafe,” the hospital said.
“In this tragic battle, the entire Greater Shanghai will fall, and we will infect all the staff of the hospital! We will infect the whole family! Our patients will all be infected! We have no choice, and we cannot escape.”
Experts say China could face more than a million COVID deaths next year.
The head of the World Health Organization said it is concerned about the spike in infections and is supporting the government to focus on vaccinating those at the highest risk.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the agency needed more detailed information on disease severity, hospital admissions and requirements for intensive care units for a comprehensive assessment.
China’s policy U-turn caught a fragile health system unprepared, with hospitals scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs and authorities racing to build special clinics.
State media said local governments were taking steps to address drug shortages, while pharmaceutical companies were working extra-time to boost supplies.
Dongguan, a sprawling city in southern China, said a total of 100,000 ibuprofen tablets had arrived in the city, and will be distributed to 41 state drug stores this week, before being made available for free, the Global Times reported.
In Wuhan, the central city where the virus was first discovered in late 2019, 3 million ibuprofen tablets have been supplied to medical institutions and retail pharmacies each day since Deember 17, the report said.
Authorities in Sanya on the southern Hainan island have lined up 18 pharmacies to distribute free drugs. Pharmacies in Zhoukou are giving as many as 10 free tablets a day to residents who present an ID card.
Shenzhen, China’s major tech hub north of Hong Kong, said on Wednesday it was splitting packages of drugs and test kits into smaller batches than originally planned, to sell to more people.
The batches will cover three days of supplies for anti-fever drugs, it said.
mRNA vaccines for Germans
In China, only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting COVID are being classified as COVID fatalities.
Other widely recognized types of potentially fatal COVID complications include blood clots, heart attacks, sepsis and kidney failure, with disease experts outside China saying the move will underestimate the impact of the virus.
Germany said it has sent its first batch of BioNTech COVID vaccines to China to be administered initially to German expatriates. Berlin is pushing for other foreign nationals to be allowed to take them.
No details were available on the timing and size of the delivery of the first mRNA vaccines available in China.
China has nine domestically developed COVID vaccines approved for use. None has been updated to target the highly infectious Omicron variant, as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have for boosters in many countries.
Some Chinese experts predict the COVID wave to peak in late January, with life likely to return to normal by late February or early March.
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