China reports drop in COVID deaths during Lunar holiday despite travel rebound

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China reported a sharp drop in new COVID-related deaths during the Lunar New Year holiday, even as a spike in travel increased the likelihood of more infections across the country.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said 6,364 deaths were linked to COVID-19 at hospitals across the country between January 20 and 26, almost half as many as the previous week.

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In the latest tally, 289 died from respiratory failure and 6,075 died from other underlying diseases but were infected with COVID, the center said in a statement on Saturday.

After facing criticism for an information vacuum that followed last month’s abrupt abandonment of COVID Zero, China has started publishing figures again on COVID-related fatalities. The government reported 12,658 deaths at hospitals between January 13-19 and 59,938 for December 8-January 12.

China’s CDC said on January 25 that the number of COVID-related deaths and severe cases at hospitals declined by more than 70 percent from peak levels reached in early January.

While China is reporting information on deaths, including those that fall outside its narrow definition of a COVID fatality, the true toll could be much higher because officials are only counting those who die at hospitals, ignoring any that occur at home or in aged-care facilities. Mortality rates in other countries as they exited COVID Zero policies also indicate China’s total should be higher.

China’s pandemic pivot in early December led to a record wave that infected tens of millions of people a day. The nation’s chief epidemiologist indicated this month that more than 1.1 billion people had been infected since the controls were dismantled.

The relaxed rules encouraged millions of people to travel home during the Lunar New Year holiday to reunite with their families for the first time in years, raising concerns the country’s poor and under-resourced rural regions may be hit hard by a surge in cases.

Some officials said the outbreak has peaked, adding to optimism that the economy may rebound after expanding last year at the second-slowest pace since the 1970s. On-the-ground reports during the holiday showed people are keen to leave the virus in the past, with tourists flocking to popular holiday spots and filling movie theaters.

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