A senior doctor at one of Shanghai's top hospitals has said 70% of the megacity's population may have been infected with Covid-19 during China's huge surge in cases, state media reported Tuesday.
The steep rise in infections came after years of hardline restrictions were abruptly loosened last month with little warning or preparation, and quickly overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums.
Chen Erzhen, vice president at Ruijin Hospital and a member of Shanghai's Covid expert advisory panel, estimated that the majority of the city's 25 million people may have been infected.
"Now the spread of the epidemic in Shanghai is very wide, and it may have reached 70% of the population, which is 20 to 30 times more than (in April and May)," he told Dajiangdong Studio, owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.
Shanghai suffered a gruelling two-month lockdown from April, during which over 600,000 residents were infected and many were hauled to mass quarantine centres.
But now, the Omicron variant is spreading rampantly across the city and experts predict infections there will peak in early 2023.
In other major cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Guangzhou, Chinese health officials have suggested that the wave has already peaked.
Chen added that his Shanghai hospital was seeing 1,600 emergency admissions daily – double the number prior to restrictions being lifted – with 80% of them Covid patients.
"More than 100 ambulances arrive at the hospital every day," he was quoted as saying, adding that around half of emergency admissions were vulnerable people aged over 65.
At Tongren Hospital in downtown Shanghai, AFP reporters saw patients receiving emergency medical attention outside the entrance of the overcrowded facility on Tuesday.
Chinese officials are bracing for a virus wave to hit China's underresourced rural interior, as millions of people prepare to travel back to their hometowns for the week-long Lunar New Year public holiday beginning Jan 21.
In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday, National Health Commission (NHC) official Jiao Yahui admitted that dealing with the expected peak in rural areas would be an "enormous challenge".
"What we are most worried about is in the past three years nobody has returned home for Lunar New Year but they finally can this year," said Jiao.
"As a result, there may be a retaliatory surge of urban residents into the countryside to visit their relatives, so we are even more worried about the rural epidemic."
She also acknowledged pressure on hospital emergency departments and promised that authorities would coordinate medical resources to ensure treatment of patients in underfunded areas.
Meanwhile, over a dozen countries have imposed Covid testing restrictions on passengers from China after Beijing announced its borders would reopen from Jan 8.
Countries including the US have also cited Beijing's lack of transparency around infection data and the risk of new variants as a reason to restrict travellers.
China has only recorded 22 Covid deaths since December, and dramatically narrowed the criteria for classifying such deaths early in the month.
But Jiao told reporters on Thursday that China had always published data "on Covid-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency".
"China has always been committed to the scientific criteria for judging Covid-19 deaths, from beginning to end, which are in line with the international criteria," Jiao said.