By Bernard Orr and Albee Zhang
BEIJING, Nov 17 (Reuters) – The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is setting up makeshift hospitals and quarantine sites with capacity for nearly 250,000 beds for COVID-19 infections, officials said on Thursday, as cases across the country hit their highest level since April.
China is battling coronavirus outbreaks in numerous major cities, including Chongqing and the capital Beijing, while it takes steps to try to ease the burden of its strict zero-COVID policy, which has caused severe economic damage and widespread frustration nearly three years into the pandemic.
In the hard-hit central city of Zhengzhou, authorities said they would investigate the death of a 4-month-old whose father said she was denied timely treatment while they were in central quarantine, the latest such case to stir online anger.
Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub home to 19 million people, is currently battling China’s largest, latest outbreak, with new daily infections of COVID-19 rising to 8,761 and raising concerns that it is reaching a scale matching Shanghai’s outbreak earlier this year.
On Monday night, people rampaged through the city’s worst-hit district, which has been under lockdown, in a rare demonstration of protest that was scrubbed from China’s heavily-censored social media.
A Guangzhou official told a Thursday news conference that the city was accelerating construction of makeshift hospitals and isolation sites, with plans to build space for 246,407 beds.
“It is better to be prepared, even if they go unused,” said Wang Baosen, the official, saying the situation in the city was at a critical stage.
At the height of Shanghai’s outbreak in April, which included a two-month lockdown, the city counted more than 300,000 beds.
SOME CURBS LOOSENED
China reported 23,276 new infections on Thursday, the most since April and up from 20,199 a day earlier.
The country has begun to loosen some curbs related to mass-testing and quarantine for overseas arrivals, boosting optimism that China is moving towards a re-opening and economic activity could pick up again, although analysts don’t expect significant easing before March or April.
Experts warn that full reopening requires a massive vaccination booster effort, and would also need a change in messaging in a country where COVID remains widely feared despite overall case numbers being low by global standards.
Officials have ordered local authorities to stop using “one-size-fits-all” approaches, and said that the public needs to be granted access to medical care and food even during lockdowns.
However, China continues to defend its approach to COVID, a signature policy of President Xi Jinping that it argues saves lives.
Officials from the National Health Commission on Thursday repeated they would implement the 20 adjusted measures to the country’s COVID policy and would speed up COVID-19 vaccination.
They also highlighted the need to build more COVID-designated hospitals and increase intensive care capacity, saying that ICU beds needed to account for 10% of the total. (Reporting by Albee Zhang, Bernard Orr, Ella Cao and Brenda Goh; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson)