Pazhou, China (AFP) – Yao Ruian frantically moved outside the fever clinic of a county hospital in China’s industrialized Hebei Province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law had coronavirus and needed urgent medical attention, but all nearby hospitals were full.
“They say there are no beds here,” she yelled into her phone.
As China grapples with its first national wave of COVID, emergency departments in cities and small towns southwest of Beijing are overwhelmed. Intensive care units are turning away ambulances, relatives of patients are looking for open beds, and patients are sitting on benches in hospital corridors and lying on floors for lack of beds.
Yao’s elderly mother-in-law contracted the virus a week ago. They first went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia. Yao was told that the hospital could not handle COVID cases. She was told to go to larger hospitals in neighboring counties.
When Yao and her husband were moving from one hospital to another, they found that all the wards were full. The latest disappointment was Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown.
Yao rushed towards the check-in desk, frantically pasting the elderly patients with wheelchairs. Again, she is told that the hospital is full, and that she must wait.
“I’m angry,” Yao said, tearing up, as she grabbed a lung scan from the local hospital. “I don’t have much hope. We’ve been out for so long and I’m terrified that she’s having trouble breathing.”
Over the course of two days, AP journalists visited five hospitals and crematoriums in small towns and cities in Baoding and Langfang counties in central Hebei Province. The region was the epicenter of one of the first outbreaks of the disease in China after the country eased its coronavirus control in November and December. The area was quiet for weeks, as people got sick and stayed home.
Many have now recovered. Today, markets are bustling, restaurants are crowded, and cars are jammed in traffic jams, even as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, official newspaper headlines said that the region ” Start to resume normal life. “
But life in the emergency wards and crematoriums in central Hebei is not normal. Even as young people return to work and the number of lines at fever clinics decreases, many elderly people in Hebei are in critical condition. As they overrun intensive care units and funeral homes, it could be a harbinger of what’s to come to the rest of china.
The Chinese government has reported just seven deaths from COVID since restrictions were significantly eased on December 7, bringing the country’s total death toll to 5,241. A Chinese health official said Tuesday that China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its tally. Official COVID-19 deaths, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that could be attributed to COVID elsewhere.
Experts have predicted between one and two million deaths in China next year, and the World Health Organization has warned that Beijing’s method of counting will underestimate the true death toll.
In Baoding No. 2 Hospital, in Quzhou, on Wednesday, patients crowded the emergency department hallway. The patients were breathing with the help of ventilators. A woman cried after being told by doctors that a loved one had died.
The intensive care unit was very crowded, and ambulances were turned away. A medical worker shouted at their relatives as they led a patient away from an oncoming ambulance.
“There is no oxygen or electricity in this corridor!” shouted the worker. “If you can’t even give him oxygen, how can you save him?”
“If you don’t want any delay, turn around and get out quickly!” She said.
Relatives left, took the patient to the ambulance. It set off, and the lights flashed.
In two days of driving in the area, AP journalists passed about thirty ambulances. On a highway toward Beijing, two ambulances followed each other, lights flashing, while a third vehicle, heading in the opposite direction, passed by. Dispatchers are feeling overwhelmed, as Beijing city officials reported a sixfold increase in emergency calls earlier this month.
Some ambulances are going to the funeral homes. At the Zhuozhou crematorium, kilns are burning overtime as workers struggle to cope with a spike in deaths in the past week, according to an employee. A funeral shop worker estimated he cremates 20 to 30 bodies a day, up from three to four before COVID measures were eased.
“There were a lot of people dying,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral goods store near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but you can’t burn them all out.”
At the Gobeidian crematorium, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Quzhou, the body of an 82-year-old woman was brought in from Beijing, a two-hour journey, because funeral homes in the Chinese capital were packed, according to the newspaper. The woman’s grandson, Liang.
“They said we’ll have to wait for 10 days,” Liang said, only giving his name because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Liang added that Liang’s grandmother was not vaccinated when she developed symptoms of the Corona virus and spent her last days on a ventilator in the intensive care unit in Beijing.
Over the course of two hours at Gobidian Crematorium on Thursday, AP journalists observed three ambulances and two pickup trucks unloading bodies. Hundreds of people gathered in groups, some of them wearing traditional white Chinese mourning clothes. They burned funeral papers and set off fireworks.
“There was a lot!” said a worker when asked about the number of COVID deaths, before funeral director Ma Xiaowei stepped in and brought reporters to interview a local government official.
When the official listened, Ma confirmed there were more cremations, but said he didn’t know if COVID was involved. He blamed the additional deaths on the coming of winter.
“Every year during this season, there are more,” Ma said. “The epidemic didn’t really show” in the death toll, he said, as the official listened and nodded.
Although the evidence and models suggest large numbers of people became infected and died, some officials in Hebei deny that the virus had a significant impact.
“There is no such thing as an explosion in cases, everything is under control,” said Wang Ping, managing director of Gobedian Hospital, speaking from the main gate of the hospital. “There was a slight decrease in the number of patients.”
Only a sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, Wang said, but she refused to let reporters in. Two ambulances arrived at the hospital in the half hour AP journalists were present, and a relative of the patient told the AP he was turned away from Gobidian’s emergency ward because it was full.
Thirty kilometers (19 miles) south in the town of Baigu, emergency doctor Sun Yana was blunt, even as local officials were listening.
“There are more people with fever, and the number of patients is already increasing,” Sun said. She hesitated, then added, “I can’t say if I’m more busy or not. Our emergency department has always been busy.”
Baigou New Area Aerospace Hospital was quiet and orderly, with empty beds and short lines as nurses sprayed disinfectant. Staff said that COVID patients are separated from others to prevent transmission. However, they added that serious cases are being referred to hospitals in major cities, due to limited medical equipment.
The lack of intensive care unit capacity in Baigu, which has a population of about 60,000, reflects a nationwide problem. Experts say medical resources in Chinese villages and towns, which are home to about 500 million of China’s 1.4 billion people, lag far behind those in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai. Some provinces lack one ICU bed.
As a result, patients in critical condition are forced to go to larger cities for treatment. In Bazhou, a city 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Baigu, a hundred or more people crowded the emergency ward of No. 4 Langfang People’s Hospital Thursday night.
Guards worked to blockade the crowds as people scrambled onto posts. With no room on the ward, patients moved into corridors and hallways. Patients were spread out on blankets on the floor as staff moved around on wheels and ventilators. In one corridor, half a dozen patients breathed on metal benches while oxygen tanks pumped air into their nostrils.
Outside the CT scan room, a woman sitting on a bench wheezes as mucus drips from her nose into crinkled tissue. A man is spread out on a stretcher outside the emergency department while medical personnel place electrodes in his chest. At the check-in desk, a woman was sitting in a chair gasping for air as a young man held her hand.
“Everyone in my family has Covid,” a man at the counter asked, while four others demanded attention behind him. “What medicine can we get?”
In a corridor, a man paces while shouting into his mobile phone.
“The number of people has exploded!” He said. “There is no way to get care here, too many people.”
It was not clear how many patients had contracted COVID. Some had only mild symptoms, illustrating another problem, experts say: People in China are more dependent on hospitals than in other countries, which means it is easier to overload emergency medical resources.
Over the course of two hours, AP journalists witnessed a half-dozen or more ambulances arrive at the hospital’s intensive care unit and carry critical patients for a run to other hospitals, even as the cars stopped with dozens of new patients.
Paige pulled over to the ICU and frantically squirmed, waiting for an ambulance. “Move!” shouted the driver.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” cried a panicked voice. Five people lifted a man lying in blankets from the back of a truck and rushed him to the hospital. The security guards in the crowded ward shouted, “Make way, make way!”
The guard told a patient to move, but he backed off when a relative growled at him. Instead, the bundled man was laid on the floor, amid doctors running back and forth. “Grand!” The woman crouching over the patient cried.
Medical workers rushed on top of a ventilator. “Can you open his mouth?” Someone shouted.
When white plastic tubes were attached to his face, the man began to breathe more easily.
Others were not so lucky. Relatives surrounding another bed began to tear as an elderly woman’s vitals lay flat. A man pulled a piece of cloth over the woman’s face, and they stood silently before her body lunged away. Within minutes, another patient took her place.
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