Huizhong Wu and Dek Kang, Associated Press
Published Saturday, April 9, 2022 8:53 am EDT
BEIJING ( Associated Press) – A series of deaths at a hospital for elderly patients in Shanghai are underlining the alarming consequences of China’s stubborn pursuit of a zero-Covid approach amid a growing outbreak in the city of 26 million people.
Relatives of patients told The Associated Press that several patients had died at Shanghai Donghai Elderly Care Hospital. They say their loved ones were not cared for properly, as caregivers who had been exposed to the virus were isolated to end the staff hospital, in compliance with strict pandemic rules.
Family members have taken to social media for help and answers and are demanding to watch surveillance videos from inside the facility after receiving little or no information from the hospital.
The hospital conditions and deaths are a sharp rebuke of China’s strategy of sticking to a zero-COVID policy as it relates to an outbreak in Shanghai in which most infected people do not have symptoms. With the focus on forcing positive cases and close contacts into designated mass quarantine facilities, the cost of zero-Covid may outweigh the risk of getting sick.
On Saturday, Shanghai Vice Mayor Zong Ming said the lockdown could soon be lifted or eased in communities that have not reported any positive cases within 14 days, following another round of COVID-19 testing across the city. can be given.
71-year-old Shen Peiming was one such accident of drastic measures. He died in the hospital on Sunday morning without any relatives. A family member said they have been calling the hospital to find out the circumstances of Shane’s death, but have not received a clear answer. “How many times has there been a lockdown since 2020? They still don’t have the experience to manage it?” said the family member.
They only know that his doctors and nurses were not there to look after Shane, who was partially paralyzed after a stroke. Her last nursing assistant was quarantined for being a close contact of a positive case, the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. An unfamiliar worker called to inform him of his death. Later the hospital said that it was due to chest infection.
There was an outbreak of COVID-19 in the hospital, the family heard from orders, but Shane had tested negative as of last week.
Shanghai officials have reported no deaths from the outbreak, but the reliability of the data has been questioned. A city health official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity said the criteria for confirmation of cases and deaths are too strict and susceptible to political interference.
It is not clear how many patients have died in hospital, and whether anyone has died of COVID-19. The families say they are talking to other families whose relatives have also died. An article by Chinese news outlet Caixin describing the deaths and infections was removed soon after it was published, apparently being targeted by censors. Calls to the head office of Donghai Elderly Care went unanswered. The Shanghai government did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Most experts agree that China’s zero-Covid approach was highly successful in keeping deaths to a minimum when there are limited drugs or vaccines. But now that the shots are widely available in China, and with the advent of the Omicron version, many say the government should abandon policy and instead focus medical resources on the elderly and vulnerable.
Instead, Shanghai has locked down its 26 million people and repeatedly conducted large-scale testing to combat an outbreak driven by the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 version. On Saturday, the city reported more than 23,000 new local cases, of which only 1,015 had symptoms.
“If you are asymptomatic, what harm will you do?” Ray Yip, founding director of the US Centers for Disease Control office in China, which maintains close ties with Chinese health officials. “The only people who get sick are diabetes, obesity, chronic disease, old people. Protect those people. You can protect them.”
However, the low vaccination rate in the elderly remains a matter of concern. According to the latest data available, only 62% of Shanghai’s residents over 60 have been vaccinated. Some experts support the tougher approach, saying that rate needs to increase before China can safely live with the virus.
The US guideline for asymptomatic cases, as in the UK, is that individuals isolate at home for five days. In Shanghai, workers are rushing to set up massive temporary facilities in exhibition halls and elsewhere, trying to house everyone who has tested positive.
The citywide lockdown has disrupted daily life and the economy. Many residents, trapped in their apartment buildings, are scrambling to buy food through apps and place bulk orders with neighbors. Some people in quarantine have posted videos showing chaotic scenes of people rushing to get food and lack of clean toilets. Others have posted pleas for relatives who are in urgent need of medicine.
The US on Friday said it was allowing the voluntary departure of non-essential personnel and family members from its consulate in Shanghai in view of the situation.
The government has touted its success in curbing COVID-19 as a testament to the superiority of China’s governance system – especially compared to Western democracies, where deaths have far exceeded China’s. Experts said this story is making it difficult for Beijing to change strategy.
“They were too hard on their people to see how wonderful they are, and now they have painted themselves into a corner,” Yip said. “Now the only way they can control Shanghai is to repeat what they did in Wuhan.”
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Wuhan’s 11 million residents were locked down for more than two months.
Shanghai’s lockdown came to a sudden halt just a month ago, when some Chinese health experts publicly suggested a softening of epidemic control measures.
The city’s economic importance and advanced health care system have left officials reluctant to take tough measures and reassured handling of any outbreak. In addition, Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered that the ongoing outbreak in China be controlled at “minimum cost” in mid-March, emphasizing Beijing’s desire to protect the economy while curbing the virus.
Shanghai took targeted measures, closing individual office buildings, shopping centers and neighborhoods for 48 hours at a time, but otherwise allowing life to go on as usual.
With the softer measures in place, the city’s number of cases rose. According to a notice posted by Guangxi province in southern China, the outbreak has spread to at least 71 other cities, adding to pressure for drastic measures.
On March 28, the city began an eight-day lockdown in two phases, which has since evolved across the city, with no end in sight.
“There is no time to waste,” Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan said during a visit to the city late last week, according to a government statement. “We need to move faster and harder to provide strong support to end matters in society.”
The action sent nurses and doctors into quarantine, making things worse at Donghai Elderly Care.
Chen Jilei said his illiterate, partially paralyzed 81-year-old mother was infected by the outbreak in the hospital. Because staff members also fell ill, her mother was not given food on time and her sheets remained unchanged for several days. After a few days, a replacement employee began taking care of her.
A college professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal, said his 82-year-old father died on March 31 after his family was not informed for more than a day. had gone. His last contact was with Ek on March 28. The nursing assistants who called to warn were positive cases and could no longer take care of their father.
“In those three days, what happened to my father? What kind of abuse did he have to endure?” He asked. When he spoke to the nursing assistant on March 28, his father’s condition was stable.
Shane stuck around in the hospital for three years after her stroke. Family members used to come every week. But visits were banned in early March as the COVID-19 outbreak spread from Shanghai, the relative said.
They were not initially concerned as the hospital had always been very sensitive and they were in contact with the nursing assistants who looked after Shane. But on 26 March an orderly warning was issued that there were positive cases and that many employees of Donghai had been quarantined.
One nursing assistant said the hospital had hired temporary nursing assistants, but many did not have healthcare experience.
The woman, who gave only her last name Zhang, said an employment agency told her it was a cleaning job.
“They said your job is just to clean, you don’t even have to wear a protective suit. But what he said was completely different from what I had to do,” she said.
Shane needed help mixing his food into a liquid and eating it through a tube. He also had a tube in his throat that had to be disinfected every day.
“In the past, if there was any problem, they would always call me. This time, there was not even a voice message, and she died suddenly,” the relative said. Now the hospital is asking the relatives to sign a form for the last rites of the deceased. Shane’s relative said the family would refuse until they got a clear answer.
The hospital on Wednesday sent an apology to some families. Associated Press has seen a copy.
“Due to the emergency of the outbreak, and many seniors were not vaccinated, it resulted in the death of those with severe underlying disease and weakened health,” it said.
While researchers from the Chinese government begin to explore ways to end zero COVID-19, the government continues to punish officials with major outbreaks on their turf.
“The space for discussion is now exhausted,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, adding that “the message is clear and clear: zero-Covid, no exception.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.