By Aritz Parza, Mike Corder and Ken Moritsugu
BEIJING (AP) — China acknowledged Friday that the coronavirus death toll in the one-time epicenter city of Wuhan was nearly 50% higher than reported, underscoring just how seriously the official numbers of infections and deaths around the world may be understating the dimensions of the disaster.
The new figures resulted from an in-depth review of deaths during a response that was chaotic in the early days. They raised the official toll in Wuhan by 50% to 3,869 deaths, adding nearly 1,300 fatalities. While China has yet to update its national totals, the revised numbers push up China’s total to 4,632 deaths from a previously reported 3,342.
The higher numbers are not a surprise — it is virtually impossible to get an accurate count when health systems are overwhelmed at the height of a crisis — and they confirm suspicions that many more people died than the official figures had showed.
The undercount stemmed from several factors, according to a notification issued by Wuhan’s coronavirus response headquarters and published by the official Xinhua News Agency.
The reasons included the deaths of people at home because overwhelmed hospitals had no room for them, mistaken reporting by medical staff focused on saving lives, and deaths at a few medical institutions that weren’t linked to the epidemic information network, it said.
“As a result, belated, missed and mistaken reporting occurred,” Xinhua quoted an unidentified official from the city’s response headquarters as saying.
Deaths outside hospitals were not registered previously and some medical institutions reported cases late or not at all, the official said.
A group to review the numbers was established in late March. It looked at data from multiple sources including the city’s hospital and funeral service systems and collected information from fever clinics, temporary hospitals, quarantine sites, prisons and elderly care centers.
The review found 1,454 additional deaths, as well as 164 that had been double-counted or misclassified as coronavirus cases, resulting in a net increase of 1,290. The number of confirmed cases in the city of 11 million people was revised up slightly to 50,333.
Questions Have Surrounded the Accuracy of China’s Reporting of COVID-19 Cases
Questions have long swirled around the accuracy of China’s case reporting, with Wuhan in particular going several days in January without reporting new cases or deaths. That has led to accusations that Chinese officials were seeking to minimize the impact of the outbreak and could have brought it under control sooner.
A group of eight medical workers, including a doctor who later died from the virus, were even reprimanded and threatened by police after they tried to alert others about the disease over social media.
Chinese officials have denied covering up cases, saying their reports were accurate and timely.
“The data released by Wuhan reflects openness and transparency and an attitude of seeking truth from facts,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday.
The U.N.’s World Health Organization has come under criticism for defending China’s handling of the outbreak and U.S. President Donald Trump has suspended funding to WHO over what he alleges is its pro-China bias.
Trump’s blaming of China came after he initially showered praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for the country’s response, while largely dismissing the risk it posed to the U.S.
At the start of the outbreak, China proceeded cautiously and largely in secret, emphasizing political stability. Experts estimate more than 3,000 people were infected before China’s government told the public about the gravity of the situation, which officials had discussed privately six days earlier.
The risk of sustained human-to-human transmission was also downplayed, even while infected people entered hospitals across the country and the first case outside China was found, in Thailand.
As Trump and other U.S. officials and lawmakers started blaming China for the outbreak, Chinese officials pushed back. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao tweeted in March, picking up on an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
Similar Doubts Emerging Elsewhere
In Italy, Spain, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, similar doubts emerged as governments revised their death tolls or openly questioned the accuracy of them.
“We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Barcelona University epidemiologist Antoni Trilla, who heads the Spanish government’s expert panel on the crisis.
Worldwide, the outbreak has infected more than 2.1 million people and killed over 145,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally based on figures supplied by government health authorities around the globe. The death toll in the U.S. topped 33,000, with more than 670,000 confirmed infections.
Authorities say infections and deaths have been under-reported almost everywhere. Thousands have died with COVID-19 symptoms — many in nursing homes, which have been ravaged by a disease that hits the elderly the hardest — without being tested. Four months into the outbreak, nations are still struggling to increase their testing capacity, and many are still far from their goal.
In Italy, officials have acknowledged that the country’s official death toll of more than 22,000 understates the true number, primarily because it doesn’t include those who died in nursing homes and were not tested.
A government survey released Friday of about one-third of Italy’s nursing homes found more than 6,000 residents have died since Feb. 1. It was unclear how many were a result of COVID-19.
In Britain, the official death toll of about 14,600 come under increasing scrutiny because it likewise does not include any deaths at home or in nursing homes. The country’s statistics agency has said the actual number of dead could be around 15% higher; others think it will be far more.
And in Spain, the country’s 17 autonomous regions were ordered to adopt uniform criteria on counting the dead. The country has recorded more than 19,000 deaths, but the system leaves out patients who had symptoms but were not tested before they died.
“There is a general feeling that the epidemiologists don’t have a clue of what’s going on, that experts know even less and that governments are concealing information, but I don’t think that’s true,” said Hermelinda Vanaclocha, an epidemiologist on Spain’s top virus advisory panel. “It’s simply not easy.”
China raised its overall death toll to over 4,600 after Wuhan, where the outbreak first took hold, added nearly 1,300 deaths. Questions have long swirled around the accuracy of China’s case reporting, with critics saying officials sought to minimize the outbreak that began in December.
That has been a struggle around the world, though. The official death toll in New York City soared by more than half earlier this week when health authorities began including people who probably had COVID-19 but died without being tested. Nearly 3,800 deaths were added to the city’s count.
Such figures can have a huge influence on governments’ actions, as medical staffs struggle to figure out how to cope with surges of sick people and officials make crucial decisions about where to devote resources and how to begin easing lockdowns to resuscitate their economies.
China’s economy shrank 6.8% in the quarter ending in March compared with the same period a year ago, its worst contraction since market-style economic reforms began in 1979.
The number of people applying for unemployment benefits in the U.S. rose by 5.2 million, bringing the four-week total to a staggering 22 million. U.S. unemployment could reach 20% in April, the highest since the Depression of the 1930s. Layoffs are spreading well beyond stores, restaurants and hotels to white-collar professionals such as software programmers and legal assistants.
President Donald Trump told the nation’s governors on Thursday that restrictions could be eased to allow businesses to reopen over the next several weeks in places that have extensive testing and a marked decrease in cases.
“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time,” he said.
New York, the deadliest hot spot in the U.S., reported more encouraging signs Thursday, with a drop in the daily number of deaths statewide and the overall count of people in the hospital.
“We’ve controlled the beast,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. Still, New York state has over 40% of all U.S. deaths, and Cuomo extended the state’s lockdown through at least May 15.
Aritz Parra reported from Madrid, and Mike Corder from The Hague. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
Source: AP News