By Xiaofei Xu, CNN
China’s top health authority has announced that it has stopped publishing daily Covid-19 case numbers, as reports claimed that the true toll of the country’s ongoing outbreak is much worse than the official figures published by authorities.
The National Health Commission (NHC) said Sunday that “relevant outbreak information” would instead be published by China’s CDC, a sub-department managed by the NHC. The decision to delegate its case counts to a lower authority comes as China experiences an unprecedented coronavirus wave following a drastic easing of restrictions.
The statement did not say how often China’s CDC would publish its Covid reports. Traditionally, China’s CDC only publishes monthly digests for all infectious diseases regulated under Chinese law, ranging from seasonal flu to Hepatitis B and plague.
Since China drastically eased its Covid restrictions earlier this month, there has been no clear data on the extent of the virus’ spread on the national level.
China no longer officially tallies its total number of infections, after authorities shut down their nationwide network of PCR testing booths and said they would stop gathering data on asymptomatic cases. People in China are now using rapid antigen tests to detect infections and are under no obligation to report positive results.
Health officials in China’s Zhejiang province, located just south of Shanghai, said Sunday they were seeing more than one million new Covid-19 cases a day. The province has a population of 64 million according to latest census data published in 2021. According to CNN calculations, it would indicate around 1,563 new daily infections per 100,000 people.
The deputy chief of Zhejiang’s health commission, Yu Xinle, said the province’s current wave is expected to peak around New Year’s Day — with daily infection numbers reaching 2 million. which would amount to more than 3,000 new daily cases per 100,000 people — and last a week before declining.
The 9-million-resident city of Qingdao in the northern Shandong province is also seeing around half a million new infections every day, the city’s health chief Bo Tao told journalists on Friday, adding that the peak is yet to come. According to CNN calculations, this represents 5,556 infections per 100,000 population.
In the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan, a city with a population of more than 10 million, health officials said Friday they are seeing between 250,000 and 350,000 new cases daily.
“The peak of Covid infection is approaching … infection numbers are increasing at an accelerating rate in Dongguan, our health system and health workers are facing and unprecedented challenge and immense pressure,” the city’s health authority said in a statement.
For nearly three years, the Chinese government has used strict lockdowns, centralized quarantines, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing to curb the spread of the virus. That costly strategy was abandoned earlier in December, following an explosion of protests across the country against stringent restrictions that have upended businesses and daily life.
But experts have warned that the country is poorly prepared for such a drastic exit, having fallen short on bolstering the elderly vaccination rate, upping surge and intensive care capacity in hospitals, and stockpiling antiviral medications.
A study earlier in December found that China’s abrupt and under-prepared exit from zero-Covid could lead to nearly 1 million deaths.
Almost 250 million people in China may have caught Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, according to an internal estimate from the nation’s top health officials, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times reported Friday.
If correct, the estimate — which CNN cannot independently confirm — would account for roughly 18% of China’s 1.4 billion people and represent the largest Covid-19 outbreak to date globally.
The figures cited were presented during an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday, according to both outlets — which cited sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions. The NHC summary of Wednesday’s meeting said it delved into the treatment of patients affected by the new outbreak.
The figures are in stark contrast to the public data of the NHC, which reported just 62,592 symptomatic cases in the first 20 days of December. CNN has reached out to the NHC for comment.
Facing growing skepticism that it is downplaying Covid deaths, the Chinese government recently defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing it had updated its method of counting fatalities caused by the virus.
According to the latest guidelines from the National Health Commission, only those whose death is caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, Wang Guiqiang, a top infectious disease doctor, told a news conference Tuesday.
Those deemed to have died due to another disease or underlying condition, such as in the event of a heart attack, will not be counted as a virus death, even if they were sick with Covid at the time, he said.
Officially, China had reported only eight Covid deaths this month as of December 22 — a strikingly low figure given the rapid spread of the virus and the relatively low vaccine booster rates among the vulnerable elderly.
The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, where posts mourning loved ones dying of Covid abound. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative pieces, reported on the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with Covid, on days the official toll stood at zero.
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CNN’s Nectar Gan, Selina Wang and Cheng Cheng contributed reporting.