Chinese authorities on Wednesday said they would launch a booster campaign targeting the elderly, amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases.
Beijing for the first time said it would also no longer report daily asymptomatic cases because the rapid surge had made the numbers “impossible to track”.
A week after China’s easing of “zero-COVID” restrictions, cases have spiralled around the country. The capital has seen long lines outside fever clinics, but as yet has not seen any apparent strain on hospital resources for treatment of severe cases.
Fever clinics, set up as the first point of contact to avoid a strain on hospital services, have seen the number of patients jump 16 times from a week earlier to 22,000 on Sunday, according to Li Ang, deputy director of the Beijing Health Commission. City hospitals had also seen a six-fold increase in patients with flu symptoms, while 31,000 emergency medical calls were made on December 9, also a six-fold increase, the official China Daily reported.
While most cases so far have been reported as mild, there is concern over at least some of these turning serious particularly among the large number of unvaccinated elderly.
The National Health Commission on Wednesday announced a plan to roll out a second booster shot, starting with elderly and those with underlying diseases.
Some health experts had called for a booster campaign to be rolled out before China’s lifting of measures to prevent deaths among the elderly. China’s campaign to vaccinate the elderly, which now faces a race against time, has lagged during the past year, with only 40% of the 30 million-plus above-80 population completing three doses. Vaccination numbers slowed as under the zero-COVID policy, many elderly saw little need to get vaccinated given low risks of contracting the virus.
That calculus has now changed for many. In the first four days since the December 7 opening, 3.59 million shots were administered, a four-fold jump from the previous four days. This month, Beijing approved four new COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, adding to nine other vaccines in use. Three doses of Chinese vaccines, which are less effective than mRNA vaccines after two shots, were shown to be effective in preventing hospitalisation and death according to data from Hong Kong.
The challenge now is to step up the vaccination campaign amid the current spread of cases. Some local community vaccination centres have suspended services because of infections among staff. The opening from zero-COVID, including stopping of mass testing and lockdowns, has been welcomed by many but has also led to new concerns. In the Chinese capital, it hasn’t led to a burst of activity but instead seen deserted streets in the first week since the easing of measures, with many fearful of contracting the virus for the first time and choosing to stay home.