Close to 60,000 people have died of Covid in China since the country abruptly abandoned its tight “zero-Covid” policy in early December, a medical official from the National Health Commission (NHC) told a press conference in Beijing on Saturday.
Jiao Yahui, head of the NHC’s medical affairs department, said China recorded 59,938 Covid-related death between December 8 and January 12. Of those deaths 5,503 came from respiratory failure caused by Covid infections, and 54,435 were people infected with Covid as well as underlying diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
China has previously listed only those Covid patients who succumbed with respiratory failure as having died of Covid. In the month after December 8, China reported only 37 deaths from local Covid cases, according to figures released on the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website – even as the outbreak has overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums amid apparent Covid surges in multiple cities.
The World Health Organization and the United States have accused China of “under-representing” the severity of its current outbreak, while top global health officials have also urged Beijing to share more data about the explosive spread of Covid in China, where reports have emerged of overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes.
On Saturday, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke to Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei about the surge.
Chinese officials shared information including the latest numbers on outpatient clinics, hospitalizations, patients requiring emergency treatment and critical care, and hospital deaths, the WHO said in a statement.
“WHO is analyzing this information, which covers early December 2022 to January 12, 2023, and allows for a better understanding of the epidemiological situation and the impact of this wave in China,” it said.
The health organization also requested a more detailed breakdown of data by province over time and asked the Chinese government to continue to share further sequences of the coronavirus with open access databases.
Jiao, the NHC medical official, said fever clinical visits and Covid hospitalizations in China have already peaked.
According to the NHC, fever clinic visits – both in cities and rural areas – have been declining since the peak when more than 2.86 million people visited them on December 23, 2022.
On January 12, 477,000 people visited fever clinics across China, Jiao said Saturday.
The NHC said hospitalizations of Covid-19 patients also peaked on January 5, 2023, when 1.63 million people was hospitalized, and 1.27 million Covid patients were still in hospital as of January 12, Jiao added.
Despite the new figures, Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said doubts were likely to remain over China’s data.
“The sharp revision is an official response to international criticism of the lack of transparency and accuracy in China’s reporting of Covid-related data,” Huang said.
“Given the still huge gap between the official count of Covid deaths and the international estimate, I don’t think the revision will quell outside doubts on the government data.”
Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the revision to China’s death toll “should be the first step towards a more timely, open and transparent sharing of Covid statistics (between) China and the world.
“Particularly, the most important information includes the infection rate in the general population, the infection rate in the elderly, the admission and occupancy of hospitals and ICUs, the number of deaths directly attributed to Covid and the number of deaths due to worsening of underlying diseases,” the virologist said.
“In addition, they should share the results of variant analysis. Besides the number of deaths from hospitals, the total number of Covid-related deaths should also be provided. Both Chinese people who are experiencing the tsunami and the rest of the world need to know more about the Covid statistics in China.”