Full ICUs, crowded crematoria: Covid ruins Chinese cities

Yao’s elderly mother-in-law had fallen ill a week ago with the coronavirus. First they went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia. But the hospital could not handle serious cases of Covid-19, Yao said. He was told to go to larger hospitals in adjacent counties.

As Yao and her husband drove from hospital to hospital, they found that all the wards were full. Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown, was the latest disappointment.

Yao charged toward the check-in desk, past wheelchairs frantically moving elderly patients. Once again, she was told the hospital was full and she would have to wait.

“I’m furious,” Yao said, crying, as she took lung scans from the local hospital. “I don’t have much hope. We’ve been out for a long time and I’m terrified because he’s struggling to breathe.”

Over two days, Associated Press reporters visited five hospitals and two crematoria in towns and small cities in Baoding and Langfang prefectures in central Hebei province. The area was the epicenter of one of China’s first beaches after the state relaxed Covid-19 controls in November and December. For weeks, the region was quiet as people got sick and stayed home.

Many have now recovered. Today, markets are bustling, diners pack restaurants and cars rumble in heavy traffic, even as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, state media headlines said the area is “beginning to resume normal life.”

But life in the emergency rooms and crematoria of central Hebei is anything but ordinary. Even as young people return to work and lines at fever clinics shrink, many of Hebei’s elderly are falling into critical condition. As intensive care units and funeral homes are overrun, it could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of China.

The Chinese government has reported just seven deaths from Covid-19 since restrictions were dramatically eased in December. 7, bringing the country’s total toll to 5,241. On Tuesday, a Chinese health official said China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official Covid-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would otherwise be attributed to Covid-19 places.

Experts have predicted between one million and two million deaths in China by the end of next year, with a senior World Health Organization official warning that Beijing’s way of counting “would underestimate the real number of dead”.

In Baoding No. 2 of Zhuozhou Hospital on Wednesday, patients filled the corridor of the emergency room. The sick were breathing with the help of respirators. A woman cried after doctors told her a loved one had died.

The ER was so full that ambulances were turned away. A medical worker called out to family members who were carrying a patient from an arriving ambulance.

“There is no oxygen or electricity in this corridor!” exclaimed the worker. “If you can’t even give him oxygen, how can you save him?”

“If you don’t want delays, turn around and leave quickly!” she said

The relatives left and put the patient back in the ambulance. It took off, lights flashing.

In two days of driving through the region, AP reporters passed about thirty ambulances. On a road to Beijing, two ambulances passed each other, lights flashing, while a third passed in the opposite direction. Dispatchers are overwhelmed, and Beijing city officials reported a sixfold increase in emergency calls earlier this month.

Some ambulances go to funeral homes. At the Zhuozhou crematorium, furnaces are burning overtime as workers struggle to cope with a surge in deaths over the past week, according to an employee. A funeral home worker estimated he was cremating 20 to 30 bodies a day, up from three to four before Covid-19 measures were eased.

“There have been so many people dying,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral goods shop near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they can’t burn them all.”

At a crematorium in Gaobeidian, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Zhuozhou, the body of an 82-year-old woman was brought from Beijing, a two-hour drive away, because funeral homes in the Chinese capital were full, according to the woman’s grandson, Liang.

“They said we should wait 10 days,” said Liang, giving only his last name because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Liang’s grandmother had not been vaccinated, Liang added, when she developed symptoms of the coronavirus and had spent the last few days on a ventilator in an ICU in Beijing.

For two hours at the Gaobeidian crematorium on Thursday, AP reporters observed three ambulances and two vans unloading bodies. About a hundred people gathered in groups, some wearing traditional Chinese white mourning clothes. They burned funeral paper and set off fireworks.

“There have been many!” A worker said when asked about the death toll from Covid-19, before funeral director Ma Xiaowei intervened and took reporters to meet a local government official.

As the official listened, Ma confirmed there were more cremations, but said he did not know if Covid-19 was involved. He blamed the additional deaths on the arrival of winter.

“Every year during this season, there are more,” Ma said. “The pandemic hasn’t really shown up” in the death toll, he said, as the official listened and nodded.

Although anecdotal evidence and modeling suggest that large numbers of people are becoming infected and dying, some officials in Hebei deny that the virus has had a large impact.

“There is no so-called explosion in cases, everything is under control,” said Wang Ping, the administrative manager of Gaobeidian Hospital, speaking at the hospital’s main gate. “There has been a slight decline in patients.”

Wang said only one-sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, but declined to allow AP reporters inside. Two ambulances arrived at the hospital during the half hour that AP reporters were present, and a relative of one patient told the AP that they had been turned away from the Gaobeidian emergency room because it was full. .

Thirty kilometers (19 miles) south of the city of Baigou, emergency room doctor Sun Yana was candid, even as local officials listened.

“There are more people with fever, the number of patients has increased,” Sun said. He hesitated, then added, “I can’t say whether I’ve gotten even busier or not. Our emergency department has always been busy.”

Baigou New Area Aerospace Hospital was quiet and orderly, with empty beds and short queues as nurses sprayed disinfectant. Patients with Covid-19 are separated from others, staff said, to prevent cross-infection. But they added that serious cases are being directed to hospitals in larger cities, due to limited medical equipment.

The lack of ICU capacity in Baigou, which has a population of about 60,000, reflects a national problem. Experts say medical resources in China’s towns and cities, home to about 500 million of China’s 1.4 billion people, lag far behind those in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Some counties do not have a single ICU bed.

As a result, critically ill patients are forced to travel to larger cities for treatment. In Bazhou, a city 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Baigou, a hundred or more people filled the emergency room of Langfang No. 4 Hospital del Poble on Thursday night.

Guards worked to contain the crowds as people scrambled to find positions. With no room in the ward, patients spilled into the hallways and corridors. Patients lay on blankets on the floor as staff frantically rolled in stretchers and ventilators. In one hallway, half a dozen patients wheezed on metal benches as oxygen tanks pumped air into their noses.

Outside a CT scan room, a woman sitting on a bench whistled as snot poured from her nostrils into wrinkled tissues. A man lay on a stretcher outside the emergency room as medical workers attached electrodes to his chest. Next to a check-in desk, a woman sitting on a stool gasped as a young man held her hand.

“Everyone in my family has Covid,” asked one man at the counter, as four others clamored for attention behind him. “What medicine can we get?”

In a hallway, a man was walking while shouting on his cell phone.

“The number of people has exploded!” he said “There is no way to get attention here, there are too many people.”

It was not clear how many patients had Covid-19. Some had only mild symptoms, illustrating another problem, experts say: People in China are more dependent on hospitals than in other countries, meaning it’s easier for emergency medical resources to become overwhelmed.

For two hours, AP reporters witnessed a half-dozen or more ambulances pull up to the hospital’s emergency room and load critical patients to sprint to other hospitals, even as the cars ‘they stopped with dozens of new patients.

A beige van pulled up to the ER and frantically honked at a waiting ambulance. “Move on!” shouted the driver.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” cried a frightened voice. Five people lifted a man in blankets from the back of the van and took him to the hospital. The security guards shouted to the packed room, “Make way, make way!”

The guard asked a patient to move, but backed off when a relative growled at him. Instead, the bundled man was thrown to the ground, amid medics running back and forth. “Grandpa!” – shouted a woman, bent over the patient.

Medical workers rushed on a ventilator. “Can you open his mouth?” someone shouted.

When white plastic tubes were placed in his face, the man began to breathe more easily.

Others were not so lucky. Family members surrounding another bed began to gasp as an elderly woman’s vitals collapsed. A man pulled a cloth over the woman’s face and they stood, in silence, before her body was carried away.

Within minutes, another patient had taken her place.

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