Healthcare workers across China are seeing large numbers of people who have been reinfected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19, putting a further strain on the country’s beleaguered healthcare system, multiple sources told Radio Free Asia.
A healthcare worker surnamed Li in the northern city of Shijiazhuang said medics are now seeing a wave of secondary infections, due to the damage wreaked by COVID-19 on the immune system.
“We’re hearing about a very large number of reinfections in out-of-town areas, due to the damage done to the immune system by the first infection with COVID-19,” Li said. “People are presenting with pain that is five to 10 times worse than what they had during their first infection.”
A doctor in the same city who declined to be named said patients are presenting with reinfections as early as one month after recovering from their first, and with immunity that has been weakened by the virus itself.
Her account was backed up by healthcare workers at hospitals in the northern city of Taiyuan and in the central province of Hunan, who spoke to Radio Free Asia on Friday.
“The incidence of reinfections with Omicron has increased significantly,” an attending physician surnamed Chen at the No. 2 Affiliated Hospital of the Hunan University of Traditional Chinese Medicine said.
“Some data show that around 100,000 people out of three million cases were reinfections, which is about 3%,” Chen said.
Reports of infection rates of around 70% across much of China in recent days would mean an estimated 900 million people in China have been infected at least once with Omicron. If Chen’s figure were to be extrapolated nationwide, that would mean the country is also seeing around 10 million reinfections.
Top internal medicine expert Zhang Boli warned the general public in an interview with the Science and Technology Daily newspaper to be on their guard against reinfection.
Virologists have long warned of the potential for reinfection with the Omicron variant of COVID-19. A study by researchers at London’s Imperial College described Omicron as being highly capable of reinfecting people, even if they are triple-vaccinated.
Study lead author Rosemary Boyton said in June 2022 that getting infected with Omicron “does not provide a potent boost to immunity against reinfection with Omicron in the future.”
Meanwhile, a Nov. 10, 2022 study in the scientific journal Nature found that “reinfection [with COVID-19] further increases risks of death, hospitalization and sequelae in multiple organ systems,” both during the initial disease and in the months that follow.
‘This isn’t being reported on TV’
The family member of a COVID-19 patient revealed in an audio recording posted to social media in recent days: “The situation has changed a bit … I’m at the hospital today, and beds are in short supply. Everyone here is on their second COVID-19 infection.”
“This isn’t being reported on TV,” the person said. “These reinfected patients are all suffering from deteriorating autoimmunity, and are lying in hospital with only human serum albumin being administered twice daily.”
A healthcare worker surnamed Liu at a hospital in Taiyuan said there are many different mutant strains of Omicron currently circulating in China.
“It’s very serious because so many people got infected all at once the first time around,” Liu said. “The data is changing incredibly fast right now.”
“It’s very easy for people to get reinfected by the virus when they’re not even fully recovered from their first infection,” she said.
Hunan-based doctor Chen said he is seeing a high proportion of severe disease in reinfected elderly people with underlying health problems.
“There is a high proportion of severe cases among reinfected elderly people with high blood sugar, high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease, emphysema, asthma and other underlying diseases,” he said.
A medical supplies business owner surnamed Sun from the eastern province of Jiangsu said the peak of the current wave may have passed in China’s bigger cities.
“I feel the peak has passed in the big cities but not yet in the second, third and fourth-tier cities,” she said. “The rural wave hasn’t really happened yet.”
Hundreds of millions of people are currently heading back to their ancestral homes ahead of Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, sparking fears of a rural wave of COVID-19 infections peaking sometime in March.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.