BEIJING (AP) — China said Wednesday it would stop reporting asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 as it became impossible to monitor them with mass testing no longer required, another step in the country’s move away from some of the world’s toughest antivirus policies..
The change in reporting practices comes a week after the country announced its most significant easing anti-virus measures. Meanwhile, China has begun to see what appears to be a rapid increase in new infections, raising concerns that its healthcare system could be overwhelmed just as other countries’ were during the first waves of COVID.
So far, many of the new sufferers have stayed at home and there has been little evidence of an increase in patient numbers. But getting a clear picture of the spread is difficult, and new reporting rules could make it even more difficult. Some hospitals have reportedly struggled to keep staff amid rising infections among employees.
A notice on the National Health Commission’s website Wednesday said it stopped publishing daily data on asymptomatic COVID-19 cases because it was “impossible to accurately understand” the number of those infections, which generally accounted for the vast majority of new cases. .
The only numbers the commission is reporting are confirmed cases detected in public testing facilities where symptoms are displayed. Many people also test at home and also any positive results would not be acquired.
The figures provided by the Chinese government have not been independently verified and questions have been raised as to whether the ruling Communist Party has been trying to minimize the number of cases and deaths.
While many governments have long focused only on the most severe cases, the latest move is part of a sea change for China, which has maintained a “zero COVID” policy that seeks to eliminate all virus transmission.
This included frequent mass testing campaigns and meant anyone who tested positive was isolated in a government facility, even if they had no symptoms. Now people can recover at home if they don’t need medical attention.
While many welcomed the easing of rules with relief, the rapid move has also raised some concern after years of the Chinese government talking about the virus as a major threat.
“Beijing is really confused right now,” said a resident, surnamed Zhu. “They made a full 180-degree turn without even going through a transition period.”
Zhu, who declined to give his full name on what could be considered a sensitive subject in China, said he was unable to find a test after developing a sore throat and fever. Authorities said they would supply 25 million rapid test kits for Beijing pharmacies after a rush for those supplies.
Despite the easing, the streets of many major Chinese cities have become eerily silent as many people are staying at home, not because they have to, but because they are worried about contracting the virus at a time when social media lights up with reports of infections.
With a clean bill of health still required to enter restaurants and some other public places, many Chinese are also choosing to forego such pleasures to avoid testing, leaving many establishments closed or empty.
In the usually bustling streets around the ancient imperial palace complex in the heart of Beijing, Huang Hanxin said he was making good use of the lack of crowds.
“If it was a few years ago, there would be a lot of cars and it would be full of people here,” said the 19-year-old tourist from the southern city of Guangzhou, standing at a gate in the complex formerly known as the Forbidden City. “It’s comfortable to walk around and take pictures.”
Instead, lines have formed outside some fever clinics in Beijing, the number of which has increased from 94 to more than 300.
Beijing pharmacies are rationing medicines and other supplies. Rapid antigen tests are sold out citywide and online.
In one factory, pharmacist Zhu Qianqian attended to a relentless stream of customers, inquiring about their symptoms and suggesting medications.
“It’s out of stock, so wait two days,” he told a woman with a prescription for cough syrup, handing her a box of pills instead. “There will be others.”
Many times he had to turn away customers who asked for the pain reliever ibuprofen or Lianhuaqingwen, a popular Chinese herbal remedy. Both were sold out.
Some have taken to ordering from pharmacies in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, which has steadily relaxed its restrictions without the chaos and uncertainty seen on the mainland. Like much of the world, Hong Kong uses mRNA vaccines that are widely considered to be more effective than those mandated by China.
Residents of other major cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, reached by phone or messenger app, also reported quiet streets.
Not everyone was worried.
“Many people around me have contracted (COVID),” said Ge Ge, who was taking her son for a regular checkup at a Beijing hospital. “It’s like having a cold for a few days and it won’t last long. I think everyone will be infected. No need to be nervous.
The elderly are more at risk of becoming seriously ill and China has been trying to increase vaccinations among the elderly. But two centers set up in Beijing to administer injections were empty on Tuesday, except for medical personnel.
However, there was little evidence of a surge in people being hospitalized.
At Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, about a dozen people waited in a line of blue tents in sub-zero temperatures. A similar number awaited test results a few kilometers (miles) away at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital fever clinic.
Nurses in white full-body protective gear checked patients one by one at the clinic, one of the isolated wards where people can receive treatment with a reduced risk of infecting others.
Requests to health hotlines have increased sixfold, according to state media.
Not counting asymptomatic cases, China reported just 2,249 “confirmed” infections on Wednesday, bringing the nation’s total to 369,918, more than double from Oct. 1. It recorded 5,235 deaths, compared to 1.1 million in the United States.
President Xi Jinping’s government is still officially committed to stopping the transmission of the virus. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or shutting down travel or businesses.
As of Tuesday, China also stopped tracking some travelalthough China’s international borders remain largely closed.
The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it would end many of the tougher measures. This came after Beijing and several other cities saw protests over the measures that turned into calls for Xi and the Communist Party to step down, a level of public dissent not seen in decades.