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Packed ICUs, crowded crematoriums: COVID roils Chinese towns

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BAZHOU, China (AP) — Yaoyang was frantically pacing outside the fever clinic of a county hospital in China’s industrial Hebei province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law had her COVID and she needed urgent medical care, but all the nearby hospitals were full.

“They say there are no beds here,” she barks into the phone.

Emergency wards in small cities and towns southwest of Beijing are overwhelmed as China grapples with its first-ever nationwide wave of COVID. Intensive care units keep ambulances away, sick families search for free beds, patients huddle on benches in hospital corridors, lying on the floor for lack of beds.

Yao’s elderly mother-in-law had coronavirus a week ago. They first went to a local hospital, where a lung scan showed signs of pneumonia. But hospitals were unable to handle COVID cases, Yao said.

When Yao and her husband drove from hospital to hospital, the wards were all full. His Zhuozhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown, was a recent disappointment.

Yao lunges towards the check-in counter, past an elderly patient in a desperately shifting wheelchair. Again she was told the hospital was full and she had to wait.

“I am furious,” Yao said through tears, clutching a lung scan from a local hospital. “There’s not much hope. We’ve been out for a long time and she’s having trouble breathing and I’m terrified.”

Over two days, AP journalists visited five hospitals and two crematoriums in towns and small cities in Baoding and Langfang counties in central Hebei province. The region was the epicenter of her one of China’s first outbreaks after the state eased controls on her COVID in November and December. The area has been quiet for weeks as people get sick and stay home.

Many are now recovering. Today, markets are bustling, diners are packing restaurants and cars are honking in traffic, even as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, state media headlines reported that the region was “starting to resume normal life.”

But life in the emergency wards and crematoria in central Hebei province is far from normal. Many of Hebei’s elderly are in critical condition, even as young people return to work and lines at fever clinics shrink.As they overtake ICUs and funeral homes, it could be a harbinger of what’s to come Rest of China.

The Chinese government has only reported seven COVID deaths since restrictions were eased dramatically on Dec. 7, bringing the country’s total death toll to 5,241. Officials said China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll. This is a narrow definition that excludes many deaths attributed to her COVID elsewhere.

Experts are predicting between one and two million deaths in China next year, and the World Health Organization has warned that Beijing’s calculation method “underestimates the true death toll”.

At Baoding No. 2 Hospital in Zhuozhou on Wednesday, patients flooded the corridors of the emergency ward. The patient was breathing with the help of a ventilator. One woman cried after being told by her doctor that a loved one had died.

The ICU was so crowded that the ambulance was not turned away. Medical workers shouted at relatives who were carrying patients from arriving ambulances.

“There is no oxygen or electricity in this hallway!” the worker shouted. “How can you save him if you can’t even give him oxygen?”

“If you don’t want to be late, just turn around and get out!” she said.

Relatives left the scene and put the patient in an ambulance. It took off and the lights flashed.

In two days of driving in the area, AP journalists passed about 30 ambulances. On the highway to Beijing, two ambulances followed each other with flashing lights as a third passed in the opposite direction. The dispatcher has been overwhelmed, with Beijing city officials reporting a six-fold surge in emergency calls earlier this month.

Several ambulances are on their way to the funeral home. At Zhuozhou Crematorium, furnaces are burning during overtime hours as workers struggle to cope with a surge in deaths over the past week, according to one employee. An undertaker employee estimates he burns 20-30 bodies a day, up from 3-4 before COVID measures were eased.

“So many people are dying,” said Zhao Yongsheng, who works at a funeral supply store near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they can’t burn everything.”

At the Gaobeidian crematorium, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Zhuozhou, the body of an 82-year-old woman was brought from Beijing, a two-hour drive from Beijing. The woman’s grandson, Liang.

“They said we’d have to wait 10 days,” Liang said, giving only his last name as the situation was delicate.

Liang added that Liang’s grandmother was unvaccinated and died on a ventilator in an ICU in Beijing when she developed symptoms of the new coronavirus.

An Associated Press journalist observed three ambulances and two vans unloading bodies at the Gaobeidian Crematorium for more than two hours on Thursday. Some wore traditional Chinese white mourning clothes. They burned funeral papers and set off fireworks.

“There were a lot!” said a worker when asked about the death toll from COVID, before funeral director Ma Xiaowei stepped in and met journalists with local government officials.

When officials listened, Ma confirmed there had been more cremations, but said he wasn’t sure if COVID was involved.

“Every year in this season there are more,” said Ma. As officials listened and nodded, he said the death toll “doesn’t really show a pandemic.”

Anecdotal evidence and modeling suggest that large numbers of people have been infected and died, but some Hebei officials deny the virus had a large impact.

“There are no so-called explosions in the cases and everything is under control,” said Wang Ping, the administrative director of Gaobeidian Hospital, by the hospital’s main gate. “The number of patients has decreased slightly.”

Wang said only one-sixth of the hospital’s 600 beds were occupied, but refused access to AP journalists. During his 30 minutes with AP journalists, he said two ambulances had arrived at the hospital and relatives of the patients told AP that they had been discharged because Gaobeidian’s emergency ward was full. rice field.

In the town of Baigou, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the south, Sun Yana, an emergency ward doctor, was outspoken, even as local officials listened.

“There are more people with fever, and the number of patients is actually increasing,” Sun said. After a moment of hesitation, she added: Our emergency department is always busy. ”

The Baigou New Area Aerospace Hospital was quiet and orderly, with empty beds and short lines as nurses sprayed disinfectants. COVID patients are isolated from other patients to prevent cross-infection, staff said. However, they added that severe cases are being sent to hospitals in big cities due to limited medical equipment.

The lack of ICU capacity in Shiramizo, a city of about 60,000 residents, reflects a national problem. Experts say medical resources in China’s villages and towns, home to about 500 million of her 1.4 billion people, lag far behind big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Some counties don’t even have a single ICU bed.

As a result, critically ill patients are forced to travel to large cities for treatment. In his Bazhou, 40 kilometers east of Baigou, more than 100 people packed the emergency ward of Langfang No. 4 People’s Hospital on Thursday night.

Guards worked to contain the crowds as they fought over positions. There was no space in the wards, patients spilled into the corridors and corridors. The sick man lay on a blanket on the floor while staff frantically moved stretchers and ventilators. In the hallway, half a dozen patients wheezed on metal benches while oxygen tanks pumped air into their noses.

Outside the CT scan room, a woman sat on a bench wheezing as snot dripped from her nostrils into crumpled tissue. The man was lying on a stretcher outside the emergency ward when medical workers stuck electrodes into his chest. By the check-in counter, a woman on a stool was gasping as a young man held her hand.

“Everyone in my family has COVID-19,” one man asks at the counter as four others call attention behind him. “What kind of medicine can I get?”

A man was walking in the hallway screaming into his mobile phone.

“Explosion of people!” he said. “There is no way to get care here. There are too many people.”

The number of patients infected with COVID was not clear.Some have only mild symptoms, indicating another problem, experts say: Chinese people rely heavily on hospitals This means that emergency medical resources can easily become overloaded.

Over the course of more than two hours, AP journalists witnessed more than six ambulances pull up at the hospital’s ICU and rush critically ill patients to other hospitals.

A beige van pulled up at the ICU and honked frantically at a waiting ambulance. “Move!” the driver shouted.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” cried a panicked voice. Five people pulled the man wrapped in a blanket from the back seat of the van and rushed him to the hospital. In a packed ward, a security guard yelled, “Open the way, clear the way!”

Security guards asked the patient to move, but backed off as a relative yelled at him. “Grandpa!” cried one woman, bending over the patient.

Medical workers rushed to ventilators. “Can you open his mouth?” someone shouted.

The man was able to breathe easier when a white plastic tube was put on his face.

Others were not so lucky. Relatives surrounding another bed began to weep as the elderly woman’s vitals flattened. They stood in silence before a man pulled a cloth over the woman’s face and her body was moved. Within minutes, another patient took her place.

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