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China to build more hospitals preparing for new Covid wave

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China’s top health authorities vowed to strengthen hospital networks to more effectively treat Covid patients, in a sign that the country is preparing to face a higher caseload as it contemplates a shift away from its zero-tolerance strategy.

The country will build more hospitals that specialize in treating moderate and severe Covid patients, and ensure that intensive care units account for 10% of all hospital beds to tend to the most vulnerable patients, Guo Yanhong, a National Health Commission official, said at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

Chinese cities should also build more fever clinics to facilitate the early discovery of Covid infections, while adding more makeshift hospitals to accommodate asymptomatic or mild patients, Guo said.

Officials are also drafting plans to accelerate vaccination, said NHC’s Shen Hongbing, without giving details. The push was included as one of 20 new measures to guide Covid control released last week in what authorities called an “optimization” of their playbook.

When asked about whether that could include the use of the BioNTech SE vaccine, Shen said the country will make choices in accordance with laws and regulations and based on scientific merits. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said earlier this month that China will make the vaccine available to foreigners living in the country.

While officials maintain that they’re still committed to strictly controlling the virus, the new guidelines, which eased quarantine time for travelers and close contacts among other changes, have raised hopes that the country is moving in the direction of rejoining the rest of the world in living with the virus.

The focus on raising hospital capacity also reflects a potential shift away from tracking case counts toward preventing severe illness and death.

Throughout the pandemic Beijing has diverted enormous resources to building a comprehensive containment regime to stamp out the virus, as well constructing makeshift hospitals to prevent infections spreading.

The latest pledge to enhancing treatment capacities underscores a pivot toward making sure the health-care system won’t buckle under an overwhelming number of frail patients, as seen in many other parts of the world.

The detail around hospital plans comes as new daily infections exceeded 23,000 this week, approaching a level last seen during the outbreak in Shanghai. While some major cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing are seeing cases surge, they’re refraining from the city-wide lockdowns and mass testing strategies of the past in order to stick to the central government’s drive for less disruptive measures.

Still, officials reiterated at the Thursday briefing that the country’s newly tweaked Covid playbook doesn’t mean it is loosening Covid control. “It seeks to make the Covid response more scientific and targeted, maximize the protection of people’s health and minimize the outbreak’s economic and social impacts,” said NHC’s Shen.

 

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