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COVID infections surge in Beijing causing hospital shortages

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For nearly three years, China focused on keeping the virus outside of its borders. But now COVID is spreading largely unchecked across the country, leaving hospitals filled and medical resources scarce. In Beijing, so many people are ill, there aren't enough ambulances. NPR's Emily Feng brings us this report.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Inside this Beijing hospital, the mood is panicked and the doctors frantic. But order prevails.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: This man, surnamed Zhang, was anxiously pacing outside the critical care morgue. He says his 75-year-old father came down with COVID a few days ago, and his blood oxygen levels plummeted.

ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: They called for an ambulance, but they were all busy fetching other sick patients. After driving his father himself to the hospital, doctors, he said, were doing a last-minute operation to save his father.

YE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Another woman, Miss Ye, said the ambulance system was so overtaxed, emergency services initially warned it would be a four-hour wait to get to the hospital. Eventually, she made it with her 96-year-old mother, who was sick with COVID. She lies in a bed in the hospital lobby next to more than a dozen other elderly patients. The people interviewed in this story didn't want to give their full names because the extent of how bad the current COVID surge is is politically sensitive. For example, China's National Health Commission said over the weekend it was no longer going to release daily infection data, something it's done for nearly three years. In the last few weeks, it was only recording a few thousand cases a day. Local health authorities directly contradicted these numbers. The city of Qingdao said it alone was seeing half a million cases daily. Zhejiang province warned it had 1 million people falling sick a day and that would double soon.

YE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "You see that yellow gurney?" asks Ms Ye. "I saw it take away two people who died last night. Another person next to me died today." Crowded hospitals and a wave of deaths from COVID, these kinds of scenes played out tragically across the world starting in 2020. Only now is China going through the same. That's put a sudden, immense drain on its health care system, hurting patients, whether or not they have COVID.

LI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: A man, surnamed Li, sits in the emergency room next to his elderly father, who he says has cerebral thrombosis, a blood clot near his brain. Immediate treatment could mean a full recovery for his father.

LI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: But they've been waiting on the floor for five days now for help without even a bed, he says. The doctors have been too busy. China had stayed locked down since 2020, buying authorities time to prepare its health care system for the inevitable surge in cases as more infectious variants spread. But it did little to prepare, instead throwing most of its resources into maintaining costly lockdowns. Roughly a third of its citizens above 80 years old have not gotten their booster shots because of widespread vaccine hesitancy and confusing government messaging. And only this month did China say it's speeding up its purchases of medical supplies like ventilators and antivirals.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: It's too little, too late. This exhausted emergency room nurse says they've just gotten a dozen or so new ambulances this week, driving nonstop so they can handle transporting the increased volume of patients, mostly with COVID. They've asked authorities to give them more ambulances, but they are still in the midst of procuring them.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: The nurse says there are no free beds left, and they're now recommending families bring their own gurneys and wheelchairs. The hospital doesn't have enough, and COVID patients will need to lie on the floor. Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.