BAZHOU, China ( Associated Press) — Yao Ruyan was walking frantically in front of a county hospital for fever patients in China’s industrial Hebei province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Beijing. Her mother-in-law had COVID-19 and needed immediate medical attention, but all the nearby hospitals were full.
“They say there are no beds here,” the woman shouted into the phone.
As China suffers the first nationwide wave of COVID-19, emergency rooms in smaller cities and towns southwest of Beijing are overwhelmed. Intensive care units refuse to take ambulances, relatives of the sick search for available beds and patients collapse in hospital corridors and are made to lie on the floor due to a lack of beds.
Yao’s elderly mother-in-law had contracted the coronavirus a week earlier. They first went to a local hospital, where lung scans showed signs of pneumonia, but the hospital could not treat severe cases of COVID-19, so Yao was told to go to larger hospitals in neighboring countries.
When Yao and her husband went from hospital to hospital, they ran across wards. Zhuzhou Hospital, an hour’s drive from Yao’s hometown, was the latest disappointment.
Yao headed for the registration desk, passing elderly patients in wheelchairs rushing like mad. Once again he was told that the hospital was full and he would have to wait.
“I’m angry,” Yao replied, crying, as he showed a lung scan from a local hospital. “I don’t hold out much hope. It’s been a long time since we’ve been gone and I’m scared because she’s finding it hard to breathe.”
Over two days, Associated Press reporters visited five hospitals and two cremation grounds in towns and small cities in Baoding and Langfang prefectures in central Hebei province. The region was one of the first outbreaks in China after the state relaxed its COVID-19 controls in November and December. For weeks, the area remained quiet as people fell ill and stayed home to prevent further contagion.
Many have already recovered. Today, markets are crowded, restaurants filled with diners and traffic drivers honking their horns as the virus spreads to other parts of China. In recent days, state media headlines said the region was “resuming normal life.”
But life is far from normal in central Hebei’s emergency rooms and cremation grounds. Even as young people are getting back to work and queues at fever clinics are dwindling, many of Hebei’s elderly are falling into dire condition. The overflow from intensive care units and funeral homes could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of China.
The Chinese government has reported just seven deaths from COVID-19 since restrictions were dramatically eased on December 7, bringing the total death toll in the country to 5,241. On Tuesday, a Chinese health official said the country counts only pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official number of deaths from COVID-19, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that have been reported elsewhere as COVID-19. 19 will be held responsible.
Experts estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people will die of Covid-related causes in China by the end of next year, and a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official warned that Beijing’s method of counting will underestimate the true” number of deaths. ,
At Baoding No. 2 Hospital in Zhuzhou on Wednesday, patients crowded the corridor of the emergency room. Patients breathed with the help of a respirator. A woman mourns after being told by doctors that a loved one has died.
The ICU was so full that the ambulance was turned back. A paramedic shouted at relatives arriving with a patient in an ambulance.
“There is no oxygen or electricity in this corridor!” the worker said. “If you can’t even give him oxygen, how can he be saved?”
“If you don’t want to waste time, turn around and leave quickly!” he said.
The relatives went and loaded the patient in an ambulance. He left after playing the siren.
During a two-day tour of the area, Associated Press reporters passed about thirty ambulances. On a highway towards Beijing, two ambulances passed with sirens blaring, while a third headed in the opposite direction. Dispatchers are overwhelmed, and officials in Beijing said earlier this month emergency calls increased sixfold.
Some ambulances go to funeral homes. At the Zhuzhou crematorium, furnaces are burning out of time as workers struggle to cope with a surge in deaths over the past week, according to an employee. A funeral home worker estimated that 20 to 30 bodies a day were being cremated, compared with the three or four registered before measures against COVID-19.
“A lot of people are dying,” said Zhao Yongsheng, who works at a funeral goods store near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they can’t cremate everyone.”