Medical supplies are running low in Beijing as health workers rush to tackle a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese capital, putting a strain on limited resources as authorities ease pandemic restrictions.
Clinics designated for Covid-19 patients are quickly filling up, and some hospitals have started dispensing ibuprofen and paracetamol. The city’s 22 million residents emptied pharmacy shelves of antipyretics and rapid antigen tests.
“We have a child with a high fever, but all the pharmacies have run out of ibuprofen,” said a Beijing resident surnamed Lin. “It came too fast, we didn’t have time to prepare.”
Beijing faces its first major wave of coronavirus just as Chinese leaders begin to relax zero-Covid controls. China’s cabinet on Wednesday formalized the end of some measures, a sign that a system of lockdowns, quarantines, mass testing and contact tracing has failed to contain the spreading epidemic.
New models published by the Financial Times this week showed that up to 1 million people in the country could die 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 the virus spreading from major urban centers to unprotected rural villages.
Most of the country’s 1.4 billion people have never been infected and have received domestically produced vaccines in China, which offer less protection than foreign-made jabs made with messenger RNA technology.
Beijing’s emergency departments are already reporting an influx of Covid patients, who the city is trying to funnel through 94 designated clinics and hospitals. Peking Union Medical College Hospital, one of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions, has converted its employee gym into a dialysis center for end-stage kidney patients who have tested positive for the virus.
“Fever clinics are a complete mess,” said a Beijing doctor who advised patients to stay home instead of seeking medical treatment. The message is being carried by local media as authorities try to maintain the city’s limited hospital beds for the critically ill.
A person briefed on the situation at one fever clinic said they were being overwhelmed by patients and running out of doctors. “The hospital sends doctors from other departments to work shifts at the fever clinic,” the person said. “Everyone works 24 hours straight, takes 24 hours off, then comes back for another shift.”
A study by Peking University’s School of Public Health last year warned that the capital was not prepared for such a Covid wave. The study found that there are about 500 doctors specializing in treating fever in Beijing, which is “too low”.
On Thursday, the city reported 4,338 new Covid infections the previous day. That number was less than Tuesday’s total, but came as the pace of testing slowed and residents turned to rapid at-home tests, which are not included in the city’s case count.
At Beijing Civil Aviation General Hospital, the line to enter the fever clinic stretched as far as the parking lot. “We’ve been waiting for two hours,” said a feverish man.
Ma Han, 28, said he relied on friends to find medicine and antigen testing kits after his wife developed a fever on Monday. “I checked all the shipping platforms — Meituan, Ele.me, JD — and they’re either out of stock or they can’t ship within a day,” he said.
Residents of other Chinese cities have stockpiled resources amid widespread shutdowns this year. According to a new report by Bain & Company and Kantar Worldpanel, which tracks the behavior of Chinese consumers, purchases of instant noodles increased by 18 percent in the first nine months of this year.
A doctor at Shanghai’s Sixth People’s Hospital says the sudden easing of restrictions means the city’s overworked doctors will soon be dealing with more and more Covid patients.
“Our hospitals are barely continuing to function normally these days,” said the doctor.
Additional reporting by Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Edward White in Seoul