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China says 60,000 people have died of COVID since early December

Ambulances are seen in front of a hospital emergency building in Shanghai, China, January 5, 2023. (Photo credit should read CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Close to 60,000 people have died of COVID in China since the country abruptly abandoned its tight “zero-COVID” policy in early December, a medical official from the National Health Commission (NHC) told a press conference in Beijing on Saturday.

Jiao Yahui, head of the NHC’s medical affairs department, said China recorded 59,938 COVID-related death between Dec. 8 and Thursday. Of those deaths 5,503 came from respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 infections, and 54,435 were people infected with COVID as well as underlying diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

China has previously listed only those COVID patients who succumbed with respiratory failure as having died of COVID. In the month after Dec. 8, China reported only 37 deaths from local COVID cases, according to figures released on the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website — even as the outbreak has overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums amid apparent COVID surges in multiple cities.

The World Health Organization and the United States have accused China of “under-representing” the severity of its current outbreak, while top global health officials have also urged Beijing to share more data about the explosive spread of COVID in China, where reports have emerged of overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes.

On Saturday, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke to Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei about the surge.

Chinese officials shared information including the latest numbers on outpatient clinics, hospitalizations, patients requiring emergency treatment and critical care, and hospital deaths, the WHO said in a statement.

“WHO is analyzing this information, which covers early December 2022 to Thursday, and allows for a better understanding of the epidemiological situation and the impact of this wave in China,” it said.

The health organization also requested a more detailed breakdown of data by province over time and asked the Chinese government to continue to share further sequences of the coronavirus with open access databases.

Jiao, the medical official, said fever clinical visits and COVID hospitalizations in China have already peaked.

According to the NHC, fever clinic visits — both in cities and rural areas — have been declining since the peak when more than 2.86 million people visited them on Dec. 23.

On Jan. 12, 477,000 people visited fever clinics across China, Jiao said Saturday.

The NHC said hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients also peaked on Jan. 5, when 1.63 million people was hospitalized, and 1.27 million COVID patients were still in hospital as of Thursday, Jiao added.