Beijing is running out of medical supplies as health workers rush to combat a coronavirus outbreak spreading rapidly through the Chinese capital, putting stress on limited resources just as authorities lift pandemic restrictions.
Clinics designated for Covid-19 patients are quickly filling up, and some hospitals have begun rationing ibuprofen and paracetamol. The city’s 22mn residents have emptied pharmacy shelves of fever-reducing medicine and rapid antigen tests.
“We have a child with a high fever but all the pharmacies are out of ibuprofen,” said a Beijing resident surnamed Lin. “It came too fast, we didn’t have time to prepare.”
Beijing is facing its first big coronavirus wave just as Chinese leaders have begun loosening zero-Covid controls. China’s cabinet on Wednesday formalised the end of certain measures, a sign that the system of lockdowns, quarantine, mass testing and contact tracing had failed to contain proliferating outbreaks.
New modelling revealed by the Financial Times this week showed that as many as 1mn people could die in the country in a “winter wave” in the coming months.
Tens of millions of Chinese are expected to travel home during next month’s lunar new year holiday, raising the risk of spreading the virus from large urban centres to unprotected rural villages.
Most of the country’s 1.4bn people have never been infected and have received China’s domestically produced vaccines, which offer inferior protection to foreign-made jabs with messenger RNA technology.
Emergency departments in Beijing are already reporting an influx of Covid patients, whom the city is trying to funnel through 94 designated clinics and hospitals. Peking Union Medical College Hospital, one of the country’s top-ranked medical facilities, has converted its employee gym into a dialysis centre for end-stage kidney disease patients who have tested positive for the virus.
“Fever clinics are a total mess,” said a Beijing doctor, who was advising patients to stay at home instead of seeking medical treatment. That message is also being carried by local media as authorities try to reserve the city’s limited hospital beds for patients with serious cases.
A person briefed on the situation at one of the fever clinics said it was being overrun with patients and running short of doctors. “The hospital is sending doctors from other departments to work shifts at the fever clinic,” the person said. “Everyone is working 24 hours straight, resting for 24 hours, then returning for another shift.”
A study last year by the Peking University School of Public Health warned that the capital was unprepared for such a Covid wave. The study found that Beijing had about 500 doctors specialised in treating fevers, which it said was “too low”.
The city on Thursday reported 4,338 new Covid cases for the previous day. That figure was fewer than the total for Tuesday but came as the rate of testing slowed and residents turned to at-home rapid tests, which are not included in the city’s case tally.
At Beijing’s Civil Aviation General Hospital, the queue to enter the fever clinic extended into the parking lot. “We’ve been waiting for two hours,” said one person with a fever.
Ma Han, 28, said he had relied on friends to find medicine and antigen testing kits after his wife developed a fever on Monday. “I looked at all the delivery platforms — Meituan, Ele.me, JD — they either don’t have anything in stock or could not deliver within the day,” he said.
Residents of other Chinese cities have been stockpiling resources amid widespread lockdowns this year. A new report from Bain & Company and Kantar Worldpanel tracking the behaviour of consumers in China showed purchases of instant noodles rose 18 per cent in the first nine months of this year.
A doctor at Shanghai’s Sixth People’s Hospital said the abrupt relaxation of restrictions meant the city’s overworked physicians would soon face a ballooning number of Covid patients.
“Our hospitals are barely maintaining normal operations these days,” the doctor said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Edward White in Seoul