Chinese officials estimate that some 250 million people, or 18% of the population, were infected with Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, as Beijing abruptly lifted nearly three years of restrictions on the disease.
The estimate — which includes 37 million people, or 2.6 percent of the population — who were infected on Tuesday alone was linked to the incident, two people familiar with the matter said.
According to people briefed on the meeting, Sun said the rate of spread of the virus in China was still rising, estimating that more than half the populations of Beijing and Sichuan had been infected.
The surge in cases follows Beijing’s decision this month to abandon its zero-coronavirus policy, which has kept the virus out through mass testing, mandatory quarantines and draconian lockdowns.
The figures presented by Sun in a closed meeting contrasted with figures released by the National Health Commission, which reported 62,592 symptomatic Covid cases over the same period. Last week, China stopped publicly tallying the total number of infections after authorities scaled back testing for the new coronavirus.
In the absence of publicly available official information, Washington and the World Health Organization have urged Beijing to be more transparent about case numbers, disease severity, hospitalizations and other health statistics widely available in other countries.
In the Chinese capital and other cities, a wave of Covid infections has overwhelmed hospitals with an influx of elderly, bedridden patients, leaving emergency rooms and intensive care units with few beds left.
However, the country has begun to abandon its zero-Covid policy as healthcare costs rise. Long-awaited quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and mainland China will resume as early as mid-January, Hong Kong Chief Executive Lee Kar-chau announced on Saturday.
“The central government has agreed to fully reopen the border in a gradual and orderly manner,” Li told reporters after a four-day trip to Beijing, where he met with President Xi Jinping. “Families separated by the pandemic for nearly three years can be reunited . . .[and]Hong Kong’s economy could get a boost. “
Chambers of commerce and industry leaders in the financial hub have been calling for a full reopening of borders for months as movement restrictions hamper the region’s economy, which is expected to contract by 3.2% this year.
The NHC’s official coverage of Wednesday’s event provided few details about what was discussed by the country’s top health officials.
But at the meeting, Ma Xiaowei, director of the National Health Commission, asked hospitals to clean up overcrowded emergency rooms and transfer patients to inpatient units, said a person involved in the event. He also urged large and medium hospitals to admit more critically ill patients and promised regulators that they would not be held accountable for the rising death rate.
Meanwhile, the estimate of 250 million cases has further raised questions about the accuracy of official Covid statistics and how authorities interpret the death toll from the disease.
The NHC reported just 4,103 new local cases the previous Saturday, marking the second day running with no Covid-related deaths. By comparison, Hong Kong reported 20,460 new local cases in the past 24 hours on Saturday.
Since Dec. 1, Chinese officials have reported just eight deaths. Senior health officials said this week that they had narrowed the definition of a death from the virus, a move that has reduced the public death toll.
However, crematoriums in the Chinese capital have struggled to process the large number of bodies, and hospitals visited by the Financial Times in recent days have piled up.
Several models, including one partially funded by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, predict that the country could suffer as many as 1 million Covid deaths during reopening.
The National Health Commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Chan Ho-him in Hong Kong