GENEVA — The World Health Organization said Wednesday that the number of newly reported coronavirus cases and deaths globally continued to fall in the last week, continuing a decline that first began in March.
In its weekly report on the pandemic, the UN health agency said there were about 3.8 million new infections and more than 15,000 deaths last week, a 17% and 3% drop on the week respectively. But those figures are believed to be a significant underestimate of covid-19’s true toll as increasing numbers of countries abandoned widespread testing and surveillance.
Still, the WHO noted that cases rose by about a third in Africa and 13% in the Americas. There was also a nearly 70% jump in deaths reported in India, although that was attributed to delayed reporting rather than a recent surge of disease.
Last week, authorities in South Africa said they had noted an uptick in covid-19 cases attributable to the BA.4 mutant of omicron, although they said it was too early to tell if that would result in a significant new wave of disease. Although the BA.4 version of covid-19’s omicron variant appears more infectious than omicron, the WHO said there was no evidence yet that it was leading to substantially higher rates of hospitalization or death.
Salim Abdool Karim, a public health expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that while only a “modest” rise in cases had been noted, South Africa was also in the middle of a holiday period and testing had dropped significantly. He said the cases were slowing and were “not following a rocket-like trajectory we would expect” in another spike of disease upward.
WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said it was too soon to tell if covid-19 was entering a seasonal pattern and warned against countries dropping all of their restrictions too quickly — as many in the West have done.
“The jury is still out as to how seasonal this virus will become,” he said, explaining that it wasn’t proven yet that covid-19 would naturally drop off in the summer and that the world could yet face more unsettling variants. “If people are crowded together in conditions where a new variant is spreading, you will see high levels of transmission,” he said.
Meanwhile, China’s capital on Wednesday closed 60 subway stations, more than 10% of its system, as an additional measure against the spread of the coronavirus.
Forty stations were closed in the morning, and 20 more were added in the afternoon. The Beijing subway authority in a brief message said only that the mostly downtown stations were being shut as part of epidemic control measures. No date for the resumption of service was given.
Beijing has been on high alert for the spread of covid-19, with restaurants and bars limited to takeout, gyms closed and classes suspended indefinitely. Major tourist sites in the city, including the Forbidden City and the Beijing Zoo, have closed their indoor exhibition halls and are operating at only partial capacity.
A few communities where cases were discovered have been isolated. People residing in “controlled” areas have been told to stay within city limits, including 12 areas deemed high-risk and another 35 considered medium-risk.
City are required to undergo three virus tests throughout the week as authorities seek to detect and isolate cases without imposing the sort of sweeping residents lockdowns seen in Shanghai and elsewhere. A negative test result obtained within the previous 48 hours is required to enter most public spaces.
Beijing on Wednesday recorded just 51 new cases, five of them asymptomatic.
The subway closings should have relatively little impact on city life, with China observing the Labor Day holiday this weekand many commuters in the capital of 21 million already working from home.
While taking a lighter touch in Beijing, China has stuck overall to its strict “zero-covid” approach that restricts travel, tests entire cities and sets up large facilities to try to isolate every infected person. Lockdowns start with buildings and neighborhoods but become citywide if the virus spreads widely.
The “zero-covid” approach has caused the most disruption in Shanghai, where authorities are slowly easing restrictions that have confined most of the city’s 26 million people to their apartments, housing compounds or immediate neighborhoods for close to a month, and in some immediate cases longer.
Shanghai reported another 4,982 cases Wednesday, all but 260 of them asymptomatic, along with an additional 16 deaths. That continues a steady decline in China’s largest city, which recorded a daily peak of 27,605 new cases on April 13.
The low death toll amid an outbreak of more than 400,000 cases in the city that is home to China’s main stock market and the biggest port has sparked questions about how such deaths are tallied.
The rigid restrictions have led to shortages of food and medical aid along with a wider — though likely temporary — impact on the national economy. Citizens have confronted authorities at barricades and online, screamed out of their windows and banged pots and pans in a sign of frustration and anger.
Communist authorities who tolerate no dissent have sought to scrub criticism from the internet and blamed the protests, including the banging of cooking implements, on agitation by unidentified “foreign anti-China forces.”
As part of reopening, Shanghai this week began requiring health institutions to fully resume services wherever possible.
Patients filled the waiting area at downtown Huashan Hospital, with lines forming outside some departments, according to a Shanghai Media Group report. While patient numbers are down by about two-thirds from before the most recent wave, their conditions tend to be more serious.
Huashan’s deputy director of dermatology, Wu Wenyu, told the Shanghai Media Group he was seeing patients who had delayed treatment because of the outbreak, some from cities outside Shanghai.
“For example, a patient suffering from (skin disease) shingles will hurt very much. He or she might have felt very bad at home, but he or she couldn’t go to the hospital due to COVID,” Wu said. “But now many patients are coming to see the doctor.”
Hospital administrators said the hospital was staggering appointments to avoid crowding.