By Martin Quin Pollard, Xiaoyu Yin and Tingshu Wang
LEZHI (Reuters) – At a busy village clinic in Lezhi County, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Yang, 59, anxiously waited on Thursday for her husband to receive an intravenous drip in the adjacent room .
For more than a week, he has had fever, chills, cough and other COVID-like symptoms, he said, as have millions of other Chinese caught up in a coronavirus surge after authorities scrapped zero-COVID policies this month.
Experts say older adults in rural areas may be particularly vulnerable due to their vaccine hesitancy and inadequate medical resources. Next month’s Lunar New Year festival, when hundreds of millions of people travel to their cities, will increase the risk.
“I’m worried, I’m scared,” an emotional Yang said between frequent glances at her husband, a construction worker surnamed Xiong. “This is not just a mild disease like they say online.”
Xiong, who received three injections of the Chinese-made vaccine, was hopeful he would soon feel better. But he worried about reinfection and says things were better before he opened up.
“Basically everyone in my construction site has been infected,” he said. “Since the opening, the virus has spread everywhere.”
Yang and Xiong, like many others interviewed for this article, declined to give their full names, a common practice in China for people who agree to speak to reporters.
Next to Xiong, in the small, office-sized treatment room in the Kongque village clinic, four other patients, all but one elderly and all on IV drips, lay coughing intermittently.
“It’s a little worse than the original cold,” said Tang Shunping, 80. “I was taking cold and flu supplements and was fine, but now they don’t work anymore.”
Across the room, 86-year-old Chen Lifen, who suffers from other conditions including heart disease and high blood pressure, was accompanied by her daughter and full-time caregiver, Liao Xiaofeng.
Chen has not been vaccinated. The family was concerned after hearing online stories of possible side effects, Liao said.
Several residents of the area, about 90 minutes east of Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, said that although the virus was everywhere, it was “as the state says, just like a cold,” reflecting the recent about-face in messages from authorities. Chinese .
Chen Changying, a doctor in Yongquan, a small town near Lezhi County, said that since China ended nearly three years of COVID curb this month, the number of patients has more than doubled to about 100 a day.
Most patients have the same symptoms suggesting a COVID infection and most are elderly, he said.
“I’m definitely concerned,” the doctor said. “Many elderly people have underlying diseases such as chronic bronchitis and this virus can easily lead to a lung infection.”
Amid a nationwide surge in infections that experts said could have reached hundreds of millions, China is scrambling to beef up overwhelmed hospitals and stock pharmacies.
Paxlovid, the COVID drug manufactured by Pfizer, is in particular demand, with many Chinese people attempting to take the drug overseas and have it shipped to China.
China’s main health agency this week instructed local authorities to “promote” and organize traditional Chinese medicine to treat COVID, state media reported on Thursday.
PHARMACIES FOR SHORT DRUGS
Wang, 57, who has run a Chinese and Western medicine pharmacy in Yongquan for decades with her husband, said the weeks since the reopening have been the busiest they have ever known and medicines are in short supply.
Many people have been hoarding medicines due to the sudden surge in infections, he said.
In Lezhi County, Liao, a peasant woman with two children whose husband works in a distant province, bought an oxygen concentrator online to help her mother breathe.
Liao has no plans to take her mother to the county hospital or a facility in a larger city because she fears it will be expensive and difficult to see a doctor.
She and others in Lezhi said things were better when COVID curbs were in place.
“It was nice when the virus was well controlled,” Liao said. “When it was controlled, there was no such phenomenon. Now they don’t manage it anymore, so now all young and old are getting infected.”
(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard, Xiaoyu Yin and Tingshu Wang; Writing by Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Gerry Doyle)