BEIJING — China on Saturday reported nearly 60,000 deaths in people who had COVID-19 since early December, offering hard numbers for an unprecedented surge that was apparent in overcrowded hospitals and packed crematoriums, even as the government released little data about the status of the pandemic for weeks.
Those numbers may still underestimate the toll, though the government said the “emergency peak” of its latest surge appears to have passed.
The toll included 5,503 deaths due to respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 and 54,435 fatalities from other ailments combined with COVID-19 since Dec. 8, the National Health Commission announced. It said those “deaths related to COVID” occurred in hospitals, which means anyone who died at home would not be included in the numbers.
The report would more than double China’s official COVID-19 death toll to 10,775 since the disease was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019. China has counted only deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to COVID-19 in much of the world.
China stopped reporting data on COVID deaths and infections after abruptly lifting anti-virus controls in early December despite a surge in infections that began in October and has filled hospitals with feverish, wheezing patients. Hospitals across the country have been overwhelmed with patients, and funeral homes and crematoriums have struggled to handle the dead.
The World Health Organization and other governments appealed for information after reports by city and provincial governments suggested as many as hundreds of millions of people in China might have contracted the virus.
Infection numbers now appear to be falling based on a decline in the number of patients visiting fever clinics, said National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui.
The daily number of people going to those clinics peaked at 2.9 million on Dec. 23 and had fallen by 83 percent to 477,000 on Thursday, according to Jiao.
“These data show the national emergency peak has passed,” Jiao said at a news conference.
Whether China truly has passed a COVID-19 peak is hard to assess, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at the University of Oklahoma and head of quality control at the university’s hospital.
“That’s difficult to know,” Bratzler said. “China quarantined people indoors. There are many people unvaccinated. The people are vulnerable.”
Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease physician and professor of public health at the Yale School of Public Health, said the number of COVID-19 deaths China is reporting may be a “significant underestimation” because of how they are defined.
“They’re using a very narrow case definition for (COVID) deaths,” Ko said. “They have to have respiratory failure. … In order to be counted as a case, you have to be at a place where they can say you fulfilled all the requirements, and that’s at a hospital.”