Experts say the nearly 60,000 Covid-related deaths now reported in China in the first five weeks of the outbreak, the highest in the world, could underestimate the actual death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
Omicron infections surged as China suddenly pivoted from zero COVID-19 in early December, and by January 12 there had been 59,938 virus-related deaths in hospitals across the country, the National Health Commission said this weekend.
China’s 60,000 Covid death toll calls for more data.
While the figure overwhelms the dozens of deaths previously recorded in official tallies that have sparked widespread criticism at home and abroad, including from the World Health Organization, experts say the enormity of the outbreak and the rise of the omicron wave in other countries that initially pursued Covid Zero strategies. mortality at the peak of
“This reported number of COVID-19 deaths may be just the tip of the iceberg,” said Zuo-Feng Zhang, director of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
The figures are roughly in line with what Zhang estimated could come from hospitals in the country, but they represent only a fraction of the country’s total Covid deaths, he said.
Using a report from Peking University’s School of National Development, which found that 64% of the population had been infected by mid-January, he estimated that 900,000 people would have died in the past five weeks, based on a conservative 0.1% fatality rate. This means that the official number of hospital deaths is less than 7% of the total deaths that occurred during the outbreak.
According to Bloomberg analysis, the official death toll translates to 1.17 deaths per million people nationwide over a five-week period. This is well below the average daily death rate seen in other countries that have succeeded in containing the virus after initially pursuing Covid Zero or relaxing pandemic rules.
When Omicron hit South Korea, the daily death toll rose quickly to nearly 7 per million people. Australia and New Zealand had mortality rates close to or highest at four per million per day during the first winter of Omicron use. Even in Singapore, which had a well-planned and gradual transition away from zero-tolerance, there were about two deaths per million every day.
Louise Blair, head of vaccines and epidemiology at Airfinity, a predictive health analytics firm based in London, said in an email: “These figures suggest that China is going through a very mild wave with very few deaths per case. suggests,” he said. “It will be the lowest of any country/region to abandon its Covid-zero policy,” she said.
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She said many of the country’s deaths may have occurred in nursing facilities or at home, as China’s latest disclosure only counted hospital deaths. Reports of overwhelmed crematoria across the country suggest excess mortality rates are at high levels.
The group currently puts China’s total Covid-related death toll at around 390,000, with a potential range of 77,000 to 945,000 based on the number of deaths seen in other countries, she said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the new figures from China, saying they give us a better understanding of the situation and the potential impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. He also asked countries to continue sharing such information and provide more detailed data analysis on a state-by-state basis over time.
China has narrowed its definition of COVID-19 mortality after ending its zero-tolerance approach, and health authorities have asked hospitals to limit COVID-19 deaths to those who died of respiratory failure after contracting the virus.
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That led to a lack of reported deaths in December and early January. The NHC said more than 9% of the 60,000 Covid deaths disclosed over the weekend were from respiratory failure. The rest have died of underlying illnesses following the Covid-19 infection, the agency said.
The death toll is expected to rise as the virus continues its relentless journey across the country, officials said, as death rates tend to lag behind infections by several weeks. The Lunar New Year holiday, when millions of people travel back to their hometowns from January 21, could increase the spread, said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Measurement and Evaluation and chief strategy officer for population health at the university. of Washington.
The group’s modeling efforts project 1.2 million to 1.6 million deaths in China by the end of 2023, which will depend on what mitigation measures the country takes, Mokdad said.
Despite the scale of the current outbreak, China can accurately track COVID-19 death rates, thanks to data from China’s public security, administrative and hospital systems, Zhang from UCLA said.
“More detailed information and transparent data on the coronavirus situation in China should be shared with the World Health Organization, other countries and the Chinese people,” he said.