In more than three decades of emergency medicine, Beijing-based doctor Howard Bernstein says he has never seen anything like this.

Patients arrive at his hospital in ever-increasing numbers; almost all are elderly and many are very unwell with COVID-19 and pneumonia symptoms.

Mr Bernstein’s account reflects the testimonies of medical staff across China who are scrambling to cope after an abrupt U-turn to relax COVID-19 policies this month triggered a wave of infections nationwide. 

Beijing government hospitals and crematoriums have also struggling amid heavy demand.

It is by far the country’s biggest outbreak since the pandemic began in the central city of Wuhan three years ago.

“The hospital is just overwhelmed from top to bottom,” said Dr Bernstein, a doctor at the Beijing United Family Hospital.

“A lot of [patients] got admitted to the hospital. They’re not getting better in a day or two, so there’s no flow, and therefore people keep coming to the emergency room, but they can’t go upstairs into hospital rooms,” he said.

“They’re stuck in the ER for days.”

People seen inside a hospital through window.
Dr Bernstein believes the biggest problem has been a lack of preparation. (Reuters: Aly Song)

‘Unprepared’ for COVID-19 outbreak

In the past month, Mr Bernstein went from having no COVID-19 patients to having dozens a day.

“The biggest challenge, honestly, is I think we were just unprepared for this,” he said.

The chief medical officer at Beiing’s private Raffles Hospital, Sonia Jutard-Bourreau, said patient numbers were five to six times their normal levels, and patients’ average age had increased from about 40 to over 70 in the space of a week.

“It’s always the same profile,” she said. “That is most of the patients have not been vaccinated.”

Dr Jutard-Bourreau said patients and their relatives were visiting Raffles because local hospitals were overwhelmed and people wanted to buy Paxlovid, the Pfizer-made COVID-19 treatment which many places, including Raffles, are burning through. 

“They want the medicine like a replacement of the vaccine, but the medicine does not replace the vaccine,” she said.

There was also strict criteria for when her team could prescribe it, she added. 

People wait outside a fever clinic at a hospital in Shanghai.
In Beijing, some fear the worst is yet to come.(Reuters)

Staff struck down with virus

Dr Jutard-Bourreau, who — like Dr Bernstein — had been working in China for around a decade, fears the worst of this wave in Beijing is yet to come. 

Elsewhere in China, medical staff say resources are already being stretched to breaking point, as COVID-19 and sickness among staff rises. 

One nurse in the western city of Xian said 45 of 51 nurses in her department and all staff in the emergency department had caught the virus in recent weeks.

“There are so many positive cases among my colleagues,” she said.

“Almost all the doctors are down with it.”

Along with nurses at other hospitals, she said they had been told to work even if they tested positive and had a mild fever.

Jiang, a 29-year-old psychiatric nurse who works in Hubei province, said staff attendance was down more than 50 per cent on her ward, which had stopped accepting new patients.

She said she was working shifts of more than 16 hours with little support.

“I worry that if the patient appears to be agitated, you have to restrain them, but you cannot easily do it alone,” she said.

“It’s not a great situation to be in.”

People are tightly packed on a subway train in china, all wearing face masks.
Commuters ride a subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing.(Reuters: Josh Arslan)

A ‘political’ mortality rate

The doctors who spoke to Reuters said they were most worried about the elderly — tens of thousands of whom may die — according to experts’ estimates. 

Health data firm Airfinity estimated more than 5,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19 in China, a stark contrast to official data from Beijing’s figures. 

China reported no COVID-19 deaths on the mainland over the six days to Sunday, according to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The country also narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.

“It’s not medicine, it’s politics,” Ms Jutard-Bourreau said.

“If they’re dying now with COVID it’s because of COVID. The mortality rate now, it’s political numbers, not medical.” 

The National Health Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the concerns raised by medical staff in this story.

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