Covid outbreak at Shanghai Hospital poses risks for China’s elders

A coronavirus outbreak is devastating a Shanghai hospital for older adults, underscoring the difficulties officials have had in containing infections even as the city imposed a 10-day phased lockdown.

Two male nurses at Shanghai Donghai Elderly Care Hospital said in interviews that the coronavirus had spread widely among the mostly elderly patients at the facility and that people had died on each of the past three days. The two, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs, said they were recently asked at night to carry a body to a room where other bodies were being stored.

The pair said they didn’t know how people died but said many had been infected with Covid and there was a lack of testing and other resources. The New York Times also spoke to a Shanghai resident, Chen Jielei, who said her 81-year-old mother had tested positive for Covid-19 in the hospital.

The situation points to a spreading health crisis in China’s largest city and reveals a vulnerable group in the country’s otherwise highly effective Covid-19 strategy: the elderly.

China’s efforts to eliminate infections through lockdowns, travel restrictions, mass testing and surveillance had largely kept Covid at bay since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan two years ago. But with the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, China has struggled to quell outbreaks in recent months. Lockdowns have been imposed in major cities like Xi’an and Shenzhen, as well as across northern Jilin Province.

In Shanghai, officials have argued that the city plays too important an economic role to shut down entirely. But the surge in cases prompted officials to impose a phased shutdown last week. First, the eastern and then the western halves of the city were to close businesses, shut down public transport, and lock residents in their buildings so mass testing could be conducted.

The rollout was chaotic. Grocery store shelves were emptied as residents panic-buy. People with life-threatening conditions have posted calls for help online when they have been unable to get help at hospitals. Quarantine facilities and hospitals are overflowing with people who have tested positive and must be confined in such facilities, even if they are asymptomatic.

But the Donghai Hospital crisis poses a deeper challenge: how to protect elderly Chinese who are already more vulnerable to the virus, especially if they live in facilities under its siege? To make matters worse, just over half of people over 80 have received two vaccinations, and fewer than 20 percent of people in that age group have received a booster shot, Zeng Yixin, a vice minister with the National Health Commission, said recently.

Officials have pointed to the outbreak in Hong Kong, where the number of deaths has been rising in recent weeks, particularly among unvaccinated older adults, as a sign of concern.

It is not clear how many people have died at Donghai Hospital and whether the deaths are directly linked to the Covid outbreak there, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal. A woman who answered the phone at Donghai Elderly Care Hospital confirmed an outbreak of Covid there but declined to say how many cases there were or give other details. Bloggers shared photos and descriptions of the outbreak at the Donghai facility on Chinese social media, but official Chinese media did not report it. Shanghai has not yet officially reported any deaths from Covid. Calls to the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention went unanswered on Friday.

The two orderlies, who shared evidence of their work at the facility, said they were recently hired to work at the hospital without being briefed on the situation. They were shocked to find upon arrival that they would be working in a ward full of patients with Covid. They said because they came into contact with sick patients, they were locked inside the hospital and could not leave.

One night, around 3 a.m., they were awakened by hospital staff and given a task they were said not to have been hired for: carrying a body to a makeshift morgue. They said five of them took the body to a room where a large number of bodies were stored.

In another wing of the hospital, Zhang Meizhen, the mother of Ms Chen, a Shanghai resident, tested positive for Covid-19 in the hospital last week. Ms. Zhang’s symptoms are mild, Ms. Chen said in a telephone interview. But she was still worried because neither doctors nor nurses had taken care of her and her mother was not vaccinated.

“The management of her hospital is a mess and there is no food. They didn’t have their meal until 9:30 last night,” Ms. Chen said. “My mother’s feet and hands hurt, but no one gave her any medication.”

With much of the city under lockdown, Ms. Chen said she could not come to the hospital to visit her mother.

“We are absolutely concerned,” she said. “Our family is in despair, we cannot visit them, nor can we bring them back.”

At another hospital in the eastern part of the city, Shen Li, a 45-year-old businessman, said his 77-year-old father, Shen Ruigen, died two days after testing positive. Mr. Shen said he was not allowed access to his father’s body, nor was he allowed to visit his 83-year-old mother, who has been confined alone in an apartment building since mid-March.

According to Mr. Shen, his father, who suffered from diabetes and kidney failure and had to take various prescription drugs every day, tested positive at a Shanghai hospital on March 26. He went to Pudong Medical, which is an affiliated center for treatment at Fudan University, but was told that he would have to wait seven to eight hours because there were more than 400 people waiting in line.

While waiting in line, Mr. Shen ran out of medicine. He couldn’t get emergency hemodialysis, a treatment that helps filter his blood. On March 28, his father was transferred to two other hospitals, but his condition quickly deteriorated and he died of heart failure.

“I couldn’t live with my father dying alone,” Mr. Shen said in a phone interview on Friday. “There was nothing I could do to prevent his death.”

Qin Xianfeng, a local health official in Pudong District who Mr Shen said contacted him this week about his father’s death, declined to comment over the phone on Friday.

Mr. Shen added that he was particularly concerned for his mother, who is confined at home alone and relies on the volunteers in her neighborhood for daily food supplies. “We didn’t tell her about my father’s death,” Mr. Shen said.

“She couldn’t take it alone,” he said. “There is no one else by her side.” Covid outbreak at Shanghai Hospital poses risks for China’s elders

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