The spread of Covid-19 in China is now “impossible” to track, the country’s health authorities have said, announcing they have stopped recording asymptomatic cases in their daily tallies.
The admission comes amid soaring presentations to hospitals and clinics as Covid-19 spreads rapidly through the population in the wake of the sudden removal of strict pandemic measures. Authorities have urged people not to seek emergency healthcare unless necessary, and announced the rollout of second boosters to elderly and vulnerable people.
China’s government abruptly ended the long-running and strict zero-Covid policy last week, rolling back measures including travel restrictions and lockdowns. Health authorities also ended the mass testing drives and compulsory regular testing which were pillars of the policy. As a result, official daily reports have become an increasingly inaccurate measure of the outbreak.
On Tuesday the national health commission (NHC) announced it would no longer report asymptomatic cases, which for most of the pandemic have been reported as a separate – and usually much larger – cohort.
“Many asymptomatic patients no longer participate in nucleic acid testing,” the NHC said. “It is impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infections.”
The commission officially reported just 2,291 symptomatic cases across China on Tuesday, at odds with reports from residents and health services of rampant infections – particularly in the capital Beijing.
Vice-premier Sun Chunlan earlier said Beijing’s new infections were “rapidly growing”, according to state media.
Official state media outlet China Daily reported Beijing had seen a more than six-fold increase in presentations to hospitals in the last week, and 16 times more to fever clinics.
Li Ang, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Health Commission, told media that on 9 December there were 31,000 calls to emergency medical services, six times more than average.
Anecdotally, residents are describing many friends, families, and co-workers falling ill with Covid, with one telling the Guardian it had “ripped through” the city. Employees at businesses, schools and embassies have described huge numbers of colleagues being home sick with the virus, or caring for family members. James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer, said on Twitter that 90% of people from his Beijing office had Covid.
“Some obviously miserable. Many nursing kids/parents at home. Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough’. This thing came on like a runaway freight train,” he said.
There are growing reports of an immediate impact on businesses.
“It’s deeply frustrating. Businesses are having to close due to staff being sick, even though they can legally be open,” Noah Fraser, Beijing-based managing director at the Canada-China Business Council, told Reuters.
“Blame is starting to flow from companies’ [foreign] headquarters to the team on the ground in China, with HQ asking ‘why can’t the China operations navigate these restrictions?’ All other markets have had to adjust and did so successfully,” he said.
Residents have also complained of long lines at pharmacies and cold medication selling out. Agence France-Presse reported a black market had emerged for rapid tests and some medications being sold at inflated prices by “dealers” whose contacts are being shared on social media groups.
Online healthcare platform 111.inc had begun selling Pfizer’s oral treatment, Paxlovid, on the retail market, after it was previously only available through hospitals. But sold out within half an hour of it being reported by media, according to Reuters.
It wasn’t clear how many boxes – priced at more than $400 each – were sold, or when they would be restocked, but Pfizer told Reuters it was “actively collaborating with all stakeholders to secure an adequate supply of Paxlovid in China”.
For almost three years China’s government used mass testing, lockdowns, strict quarantine and travel restrictions in response to any outbreak. The policy successfully kept the virus at bay for more than two years, and was stridently defended by officials as the best response, even as it was challenged by the more transmissible variants. But frequent and sudden lockdowns and travel bans began to grate with the population, and last month protests erupted after a series of fatal tragedies which people linked to enforcement of zero-Covid.
Last week the government suddenly announced the end of most restrictions, immediately pivoting the official messaging about Covid from it being something to fear and avoid at all costs, to a mild illness which the community could live with.
“It feels quite bizarre actually, they’ve gone from 100 to zero it seems,” one Guangzhou resident told the Guardian. “I think people are [still] concerned about catching Covid as there are less people out than normal I’ve observed.”
Earlier this week China’s top health expert said their modelling suggested the wave would peak within a month, and life in China would return to a pre-2020 level of normality by mid next year.
But there are concerns that the swift reopening could see China’s health system overwhelmed in the short term. Health resources are inequitably spread, and nationally there are far fewer intensive care beds a head of population that other nearby countries. China also has an ageing population, with older demographics significantly undervaccinated.
On Wednesday the NHC said would roll out a second booster shot for high risk groups and people over the age of 60.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report