REFILE-China’s healthcare system put to the test as COVID restrictions ease

(Refiles to fix ‘disrupting’ typographical error, paragraph 8)

By Ella Cao and Ryan Woo

BAODING, China, Dec 11 (Reuters) – When Li tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday in Baoding, northern China, he prepared for a five-day quarantine at a local makeshift hospital in the under the country’s strict pandemic controls.

Instead, China the next day abruptly relaxed the policy that made the world’s most populous country an outlier in a world largely learning to live with COVID.

Li, 30, who asked to be identified only by his surname, told Reuters he had been allowed to recuperate at his home in the industrial city near the capital Beijing.

But the sudden change in policy caught him off guard – left to fend for himself, he had no medicine at home to treat his fever.

“I couldn’t buy medicine at that time, with long lines everywhere in front of pharmacies,” Li told Reuters.

Three years after the coronavirus emerged in central China, some citizens had recently launched rare public protests against a zero-COVID policy that had demanded economically disruptive shutdowns and mandatory quarantine at government facilities.

But Beijing’s abrupt shift in policy on Wednesday, cheered by some, also sparked apprehension in a country with relatively low vaccination rates where people had come to fear the disease.

The relaxation of mandatory PCR testing for China’s 1.4 billion people has weakened the ability of health authorities to quickly detect cases and assess the spread of infections, disrupting society and the economy.

Since the easing of restrictions, authorities have not predicted how many people could become seriously ill or die. In October, China predicted at least 100 deaths per 100,000 infections.

LACK OF DRUGS

Baoding, home to 9.2 million people, quickly drew attention on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter, with posts from people with COVID drawing attention to undersupplied medical supplies as infections surged.

Some stocks have been replenished, Reuters found during a visit, with cold medicines like ibuprofen available in many pharmacies. But popular traditional Chinese medicine Lianhua Qingwen, used for symptoms like fever and cough, and antigen test kits have remained harder to come by.

Baoding is not alone. Online pharmacies across China are running out of drugs and test kits, prompting the government to crack down on hoarding.

Officials urged households to report severe symptoms, using self-administered antigen kits. But such kits are still hard to find, increasing the risk that seriously ill people will not be treated quickly.

“There will definitely be an increasing number of infections” in the coming weeks, regardless of the number captured in the testing figures, said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. Serious infections will also increase, he warned.

China has 138,100 hospital beds for intensive care, a health official said recently, which is low for China’s vast population.

MIXED MESSAGE

And just as more COVID patients recover at home, Baoding has been hit by a heating shortage in winter, raising the risk of serious illness. The heat was insufficient due to the “unstable” coal supply caused by COVID, the state-run Baoding daily reported, without giving details.

A Baoding resident named Wang, 20, said the temperature in her home was only 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit). Two members of his family had COVID.

“We used to joke that Baoding people don’t need heat because we can warm ourselves with our own body temperature,” she said.

Health officials recognize that the elderly are particularly vulnerable and that more vaccinations are needed.

The risk of serious illness for people over 65 is five times higher than for younger people, the risk for people over 75 seven times and nine times for those over 85, while their risk of death is 90, 220 and 570 times higher respectively, an official with the Chinese Center for Disease Control said.

But the call for older people to better protect themselves seems to have been diluted by the simultaneous message that the Omicron variant is not deadly.

Yang, 64, refrained from stocking up. “I’m not afraid” of COVID, said Yang, a fully vaccinated farmer with no underlying disease.

China has reported zero deaths since easing COVID restrictions, with around 5,200 fatalities so far, compared to more than one million in the United States.

But time will tell if a US-wide death rate, which would mean 4 million deaths in China, can be avoided. (Reporting by Ella Cao and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Darerca Siu in Hong Kong; Editing by William Mallard)

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