17,000 deaths a day: Hospitals overflowing as China ends its zero-COVID restrictions

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Marcelle Hutchins and Bennett Purser

Medical staff members move a patient into a fever clinic at a hospital, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Shanghai, China, December 19, 2022. Photo by REUTERS/Aly Song.

Coronavirus is spreading rapidly in China, just weeks after the country abruptly ended its zero-COVID policy. Before, the virus was contained but cities were locked down and residents felt like prisoners inside their own homes. With restrictions now gone, hospitals are overflowing and crematoriums are operating around the clock.

Chinese health officials are reporting 1800 cases of COVID-19 a day and only a handful of deaths. However, that may be an under-report of the true number of cases, says Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington.

Instead, he estimates there are about 17,000 deaths a day.

“China has changed the way they define COVID-19 deaths. They only attribute COVID-19 deaths to pneumonia, respiratory diseases. So anybody dying from COVID-19 from a heart condition, they will assign it to [a] heart condition right now,” Mokdad explains.

By April 1, he estimates 500,000 deaths. By the end of the year, he estimates 1.6 million deaths. If mandates are put into place, that number is projected to drop to 1.2 million.

Elderly people are the most vulnerable now, Mokdad explains, due to low vaccination rates. He says only an estimated 40% of people above the age of 80 have gotten a vaccine.

“Unfortunately in China, especially among the elderly population, [there’s] this disbelief in Western medication, and more belief in traditional medication. And that's why the uptake of the vaccine has been very low in that age group.”

If hospitalizations continue to increase, Mokdad expects China to institute mandates similar to those seen in the U.S.

He adds that it’s possible COVID will continue to mutate as it spreads among Chinese communities, but he’s hopeful that an immune-escape variant will not emerge.



  • Ali Mokdad - epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington