Travellers walk toward the entrance to the Beijing Railway Station on January 14, 2023. Millions of Chinese are expected to travel during the Lunar New Year holiday period this year. Image Credit: AP

BEIJING: China’s health authorities on Saturday reported almost 60,000 COVID-related deaths in just over a month, the first major death toll released by the government since the loosening of its virus restrictions in early December.

There were a total of 59,938 COVID-related deaths between December 8, 2022 and January 12 this year, Jiao Yahui, head of the Bureau of Medical Administration under the National Health Commission, told a press conference.

The death toll included 5,503 deaths due to respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 and 54,435 fatalities from other ailments combined with COVID-19. The official said those deaths occurred in hospitals, which left open the possibility more people also might have died at home.

The report would more than double China’s official COVID-19 death toll to 10,775. The official toll stood at 5,272 on January 8.

On the decline

Hospitalised severe COVID positive patients hit a peak of 128,000 on January 5, and stood at 105,000 on January 12, a majority of them old people, the official said.

COVID fever and emergency hospitalisations have peaked and the number of hospitalised patients is continuing to decline, the health official said.

Nationwide, "the number of fever clinic visitors is generally in a declining trend after peaking, both in cities and rural areas," Jiao said.

Jiao said the number of emergency treatment patients was also declining and the ratio of patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 was steadily falling as well.

Commuters walk along a street in the central business district in Beijing, on January 12, 2023. Image Credit: AP

The country will beef up training of grassroot medical workers to fight COVID in rural areas, she said.

“These data show the national emergency peak has passed,” Jiao said.

The Chinese government stopped reporting data on COVID-19 infections and deaths in early December after abruptly lifting anti-virus controls. The World Health Organisation and other governments appealed to Beijing for more information amid a surge in infections.

The United States, South Korea and other governments have imposed virus-testing and other controls on people arriving from China. Beijing retaliated on Wednesday by suspending issuance of new visas to travelers from South Korea and Japan.

China kept its infection rate and deaths lower than those of the United States and some other countries at the height of the pandemic with a “zero-COVID” strategy that aimed to isolate every case. That shut down access to some cities, kept millions of people at home and sparked angry protests.

The average age of people who died since Dec. 8 is 80.3 years and 90.1% are aged 65 and above, according to the Health Commission. It said more than 90% of people who died had cancer, heart or lung diseases or kidney problems.

“The number of elderly patients dying from illness is relatively large, which suggests that we should pay more attention to elderly patients and try our best to save their lives,” said Jiao.