Amid what appears to be an explosive outbreak of COVID-19, China on Wednesday said it would no longer report asymptomatic cases because they’ve become “impossible” to track after an end to mandatory testing.
The now-voluntary testing policy is part of an abrupt pivot away from the country’s strict zero-COVID policy that drew widespread protests in recent weeks.
After years of keeping SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks largely at bay with various restrictions, mandatory isolations, quarantines, lockdowns, and extensive testing, China last week significantly eased its unpopular policy. The State Council announced on December 7 that residents would no longer be required to undergo frequent PCR tests for COVID-19. It also dropped the requirement to use digital health passes—personal QR codes that tracked an individual’s movements and COVID-19 test results—for access to buildings and public transportation. And for the first time during the pandemic, the government also allowed people with mild or asymptomatic infections to isolate at home rather than in centralized facilities, which residents often criticized for being unsanitary and overcrowded.
The dramatic reversals came in response to large-scale protests and discontent. But the abrupt changes amid rising cases have only worsened concerns that the pandemic will now savagely rip through China’s vulnerable population, which is largely devoid of protection from past infection and is vaccinated only with domestic vaccines that are thought to offer less protection than the mRNA vaccines used in much of the rest of the world.
Without centralized testing, people in China are now relying on at-home rapid tests for the first time during the pandemic. But there is no centralized way to report results. The only case numbers reported now are from people with symptoms who have confirmed cases after being tested in government facilities.
As such, China reported only 2,249 confirmed domestic infections Wednesday, bringing the nation’s official total case count during the pandemic to 369,918. The government also reported 5,235 deaths, though there are reports that China has changed the way it is counting deaths, potentially not including deaths involving underlying conditions.
The true number of cases is likely to be many times higher, though any firm estimates are impossible to come by. Journalists in Beijing report empty streets, shuttered shops, and restaurants only offering takeout. Social media platforms are filled with anecdotes of mass infection and people staying in to dodge an infection themselves.
CNN spoke to a community worker who said that 21 of the 24 workers in her Beijing neighborhood committee office had been out sick in recent days. The Associated Press reported that some hospitals are struggling to remain staffed because so many employees are out sick. The AP noted that the only places in Beijing that appeared to be bustling were some fever clinics and pharmacies, where COVID tests and cold and flu medications were running low.