China officially reports first COVID deaths in weeks as virus surge rises

China on Monday officially reported its first COVID-19-related deaths since the government began dismantling strict virus controls earlier this month, fueling anxiety that this could be the start of a sad trend as the virus swept the country.

Monday’s two deaths were the first reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) since December 3, days before Beijing announced it was abandoning curbs that had kept the virus under control for three years but sparked widespread protests last month.

Although on Saturday, a Reuters reporter in Beijing saw hearses with the dead lining the driveway of a designated COVID-19 crematorium and about 20 yellow bags containing corpses on the floor of an adjacent funeral home. Reuters could not immediately establish whether the deaths were due to COVID.

Officially, China has suffered only 5,237 COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two fatalities, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion people and very low by global standards.

The NHC also reported 1,995 symptomatic infections on December 18, compared with 2,097 a day earlier. It stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, citing a drop in mandatory PCR testing after China’s policy change.

And there is growing doubt that China’s data is capturing the rapidly worsening situation on the ground.

A hashtag about the two reported COVID deaths quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo on Monday morning.

“What good are incomplete statistics?” one user asked. “Isn’t this cheating the public?” wrote another.

Workers at a dozen funeral homes in Beijing told Reuters on Saturday they were busier than normal.

Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin reported on Friday that two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID, and then on Saturday that a 23-year-old medical student had also died. It was not immediately clear which, if any, of those deaths were included in the official death toll.

The NHC did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters about the accuracy of its data.

As China aligns itself with a world that has largely opened up in an effort to live with the virus, it may now pay a price to protect a population that lacks natural immunity and has low vaccination rates among the seniors, health experts say.

Some say the death toll from COVID in China may exceed 1.5 million in the coming months.

In Beijing’s Shijingshan district, medical workers have been going door-to-door offering to vaccinate elderly residents in their homes, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported on Sunday.

Officially, China’s vaccination rate is more than 90 percent, but the rate of fortified adults is down to 57.9 percent and 42.3 percent for those 80 and older, according to government data.

But it’s not just the elderly who are wary of vaccines in China.

“I don’t trust it,” Candice, a 28-year-old headhunter in Shenzhen, told Reuters, citing friends’ stories of health impacts, as well as similar warnings on social media. Candice spoke on the condition that only her name be used.

Foreign-developed vaccines are not available in mainland China to the general public, which has relied on inactivated vaccines from local manufacturers for its vaccine deployment.

While China’s medical community generally does not doubt the safety of China’s vaccines, some say questions remain about their effectiveness compared to foreign-made mRNA counterparts.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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