In China, doctors say they are discouraged from citing COVID on death certificates
Six doctors at public hospitals across China told sources they had either received similar oral instructions discouraging them from attributing deaths to COVID
During a busy shift at the height of Beijing's COVID wave, a physician at a private hospital saw a printed notice in the emergency department: doctors should "try not to" write COVID-induced respiratory failure on death certificates.
Instead, if the deceased had an underlying disease, that should be named as the main cause of death, according to the notice, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
If doctors believe that the death was caused solely by COVID-19 pneumonia, they must report to their superiors, who will arrange for two levels of "expert consultations" before a COVID death is confirmed, it said.
Six doctors at public hospitals across China told sources they had either received similar oral instructions discouraging them from attributing deaths to COVID or were aware that their hospitals had such policies.
Some relatives of people who have died with COVID say the disease did not appear on their death certificates, and some patients have reported not being tested for coronavirus despite arriving with respiratory symptoms.
Such directives have led to criticism by global health experts and the World Health Organization that China has drastically underreported COVID deaths as the coronavirus runs rampant in the country, which abandoned its strict "zero-COVID" regime in December.
On Saturday, officials said 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospitals since China's policy U-turn, a roughly ten-fold increase from previously reported figures, but still short of expectations of international experts, who have said China could see more than a million COVID-related deaths this year.
China's Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Health Commission (NHC) did not immediately respond to Reuters' requests for comment. The doctors in this article declined to be named because they are not permitted to speak to the media.
Several said they were told such guidance came from "the government", though none knew from which department, a common situation in China when politically sensitive instructions are disseminated.
Three other doctors at public hospitals in different cities said they were unaware of any such guidance.
One of them, a senior emergency room doctor in Shandong province, said doctors were issuing death certificates based on the actual cause of death, but "how to categorise" those deaths is up to the hospitals or local officials.
Since the start of the pandemic, which first emerged three years ago in its central city of Wuhan, China has drawn heavy criticism for not being transparent over the virus - an accusation it has repeatedly rejected.
Before Saturday, China was reporting five or fewer COVID deaths per day.
Of the nearly 60,000 COVID-related fatalities since Dec. 8 it announced on Saturday since, fewer than 10 per cent were caused by respiratory failure because of COVID.
The rest resulted from a combination of COVID and other diseases, Jiao Yahui, head of the Bureau of Medical Administration under the National Health Commission (NHC), said on Saturday.
Michael Baker, a public health scholar at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said the updated death toll still "looks low" compared with the high level of infection in China.
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said it was unclear whether the new data accurately reflected actual fatalities, in part because the numbers include only deaths in hospitals.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday recommended that China monitor excess mortality to gain a fuller picture of the impact of the surge in COVID. Excess mortality is when the number of deaths for a given period is higher than it should be relative to historical averages.