BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's provinces should set up at least two to three temporary hospitals each to treat Covid-19 patients, Beijing said on Tuesday (March 22), a potential sign the country is anticipating an increase in cases as it battles an Omicron outbreak and ponders how to exit its isolationist virus strategy.
The order from the National Health Commission came after China updated its Covid-19 treatment guidelines last week to reserve actual hospitals for those with severe Covid-19 conditions.
Patients with mild or no symptoms will now be sent to the makeshift facilities to isolate so as to avoid overwhelming the medical system.
China still isolates all cases, regardless of severity, as part of its Covid Zero policy - an approach that has kept deaths low but is now being challenged as more contagious variants emerge and the rest of the world opens up.
The country has 31 provinces and territories, meaning at least 62 temporary sites could be constructed, a mammoth undertaking.
Some 33 makeshift hospitals have already been built, or are currently under construction, providing 35,000 beds, National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui said at a briefing on Tuesday.
Local governments are required to come up with plans to ensure the facilities can be put to use within two days when needed.
China first started building temporary facilities at the start of the pandemic, when they famously constructed two makeshift hospitals in the original epicentre, Wuhan, in 10 days.
The hospitals are typically made with prefab-style buildings that in some cases resemble shipping containers, and thousands of workers are brought in to construct them quickly.
In Wuhan, they were key to the eventual containment of the outbreak there, stifling community transmission by removing the source. Around 95 per cent of the cases in China's current outbreak have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, which would mean significant pressure on the under-resourced permanent medical system if cases were to swell.
The country of 1.4 billion saw 4,594 new locally-acquired infections on Tuesday, low by global standards but the most significant outbreak China has seen since the Wuhan days.
China would see a "colossal outbreak" with as many as 630,000 new infections a day if it were to remove restrictions like border curbs, compulsory quarantines and mandatory isolation of cases, like countries from the United States to Singapore have done, modelling by Peking University in November showed.
China should stick to the zero-tolerance approach, with not "one iota of relaxation" said Professor Liang Wannian, a seasoned epidemiologist who has overseen China's Covid-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic and was recently sent to Hong Kong to guide efforts to contain its worst ever outbreak.
The remarks, made to the state-run Xinhua news agency, came as Hong Kong moves to ease some incoming travel curbs and laid out a timeline for relaxing internal social-distancing rules.
Still, there are concrete signs China is at least adjusting Covid Zero, after President Xi Jinping said last week the country needed to reduce its impact on the economy and business.
While lockdowns are still being imposed - yet another city, Tangshan, near Beijing was subject to such restrictions late Tuesday - other places are taking a more targeted approach.
The tech hub of Shenzhen was allowed to let factories resume during its recent lockdown under certain constraints, and Shanghai, which is currently seeing more than 900 new cases a day, is taking a more targeted approach, locking down individual buildings for short periods to test residents.
The lockdown on the north-eastern province of Jilin, however, was tightened even further Tuesday, with residents banned from even leaving their homes for four days and grocery stores in apartment complexes closed so that authorities can choke off the outbreak.
The province remains the single biggest virus hotspot in the country, with cases holding around 3,000 a day.
A key tool in China's Covid Zero arsenal has been mass testing early in an outbreak. Sometimes conducted over multiple rounds so as to root out all infections, the process has led to disruptions, with Toyota Motor and Volkswagen factories in the city of Tinjian having to shut down for about two weeks in January because workers were being constantly tested.
Mandated testing in targeted regions will need to be completed within 24 hours, the official Jiao said Tuesday. The time requirement will help officials keep up with the spread of Omicron, he said.