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China’s overwhelmed hospitals turn away ambulances during COVID surge

China’s hospitals are so overwhelmed after the sudden reversal of the country’s “zero-COVID” policies that many have been forced to turn away ambulances and critically ill patients.

Emergency rooms in smaller cities and towns outside of Bejing are teeming with sick patients, slumped on benches and laying on the floor due to a lack of available beds.

With intensive care units at capacity, the facilities are not able to admit all of the patients being rushed to them in ambulances.

Bejing-based doctor Howard Bernstein has not seen a situation so dire in the three decades he has been practicing medicine.

“The hospital is just overwhelmed from top to bottom,” Bernstein told Reuters at the end of a “stressful” shift at Beijing United Family Hospital.

Not only is the ICU full, but so is the emergency department, the fever clinic and just about every other ward in the hospital, Bernstein said.

Almost all of the patients desperately seeking treatment for the virus are elderly and suffering from COVID and pneumonia symptoms. The majority of the patients have not been vaccinated against COVID.

“A lot of them got admitted to the hospital. They’re not getting better in a day or two, so there’s no flow, and therefore people keep coming to the ER, but they can’t go upstairs into hospital rooms,” he said. “They’re stuck in the ER for days.”

National infections have been on the rise ever since the Communist government abruptly abandoned its strict “zero-COVID” policies seemingly without a plan to deal with the inevitable surge of infections.

Chinese residents are no longer required to report positive test results, and the government is no longer publishing the daily number of asymptomatic cases.

Since the policy was lifted earlier this month, Bernstein went from never having treated a COVID patient to seeing dozens every day.

“The biggest challenge, honestly, is I think we were just unprepared for this,” he said.

Hospitals and other medical faciltiies have reported a lack of resources to combat the increase in infections, and have been so short staffed they have required nurses and medics to come in to work even if they test positive for the virus and have a fever.

A nurse based in the western city of Xian said 45 of 51 nurses in her department as well as all employees in the hospital’s emergency room have caught COVID in recent weeks.

Sonia Jutard-Bourreau, the chief medical officer at the private Raffles Hospital in Beijing, said patient numbers have increased dramatically — up five to six times their normal levels — and that the average age of patients has shot up by about 40 years to over 70 years within a week.

Most of the patients have not been vaccinated, Jutard-Bourreau said, but many still try to buy Paxlovid, which many hospitals have in dangerously short supply.

“They want the medicine like a replacement of the vaccine, but the medicine does not replace the vaccine,” Jutard-Bourreau said.

Some 37 million people may have contracted COVID-19 in China on Dec. 20 alone — and as many as 248 million people — nearly 18% of China’s population — came down with the virus in the first 20 days of December.

It is unclear how Chinese health officials arrived at the gigantic figure since the government doesn’t release detailed data on COVID and the country’s network of PCR testing booths was shut down earlier this month, though the uptick has sparked fears globally that a new, dangerous variant could emerge.

With Post wires

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