Despite the WHO's refusal to even consider the question during its press conference on Monday, evidence continues to mount that officials in Beijing and Hubei are seriously massaging the stats to conform to Beijing's narrative that the outbreak is under control, and is finally starting to recede.
Yesterday, we shared the story of a doctor in Hunan who said out of 50 deaths at his hospital that day, authorities only counted one in the official stats.
Then in the early hours of Tuesday morning, state-controlled business publication Caixin published a shocking scoop that exposed officials' undercounting, and also suggested that the exaggerations are about as bad as critics feared.
It's hard to image that this wasn't a deliberate act of defiance by a journalist who was finally fed up with official lies. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang earlier this month inspired a nascent free-speech movement that just might outlast the outbreak, unless authorities move to brutally crush it.
The reporters claim that a pattern of discrepancies that has emerged in the official statistics surrounding cases tied to nursing homes and other facilities specializing in elder care. The elderly are, of course, one of several vulnerable populations singled out by the WHO and the governor of Hubei for special care.
But after it came to light late last week that Chinese authorities missed 500 cases in several prisons in and outside of Hubei, journalists and local officials got curious to see what else was being overlooked.
One nursing home situated just blocks from the seafood market where the outbreak allegedly began reported 19 deaths recently all of which are believed to have been caused by the virus. However, a doctor told the paper that only one death was counted in the official statistics.
Unexplained deaths from lung ailments among the elderly at the Wuhan Social Welfare Institute and similar facilities suggest that nursing homes may be another blind spot as the government’s epidemic-fighting efforts have focused on hospitals and other communities. Last week it came to light that Chinese prisons reported more than 500 previously uncounted Covid-19 cases among guards and inmates.
The situation was complicated by the quarantine, which cut off many family members from their loved ones. Once elderly patients were moved into quarantines, it only became more difficult to track them.
After Wuhan tightened quarantine measures to restrict people from leaving their homes and to send the sick into makeshift quarantine quarters, many people lost contact with elderly family members in nursing homes. Family members of people in nursing homes say they have been trying to find out how many residents may be infected, where the elderly are quarantined, whether there are caregivers, what test results show and whether the government can send more medical and care staff to institutions.
Given all the staff shortages, and the staggering number of health-care professionals who caught the virus, family members accused the state of failing to provide sufficient protections for elderly family members who died of the virus.
Some family members of deceased seniors told Caixin that the nursing home didn’t take sufficient protective measures and residents were not even asked to wear masks.
The doctor at the infirmary said the nursing home wasn’t sealed off until Jan. 21, when the outbreak was already spreading quickly in the city. Because it was close to the Lunar New Year, there were many visitors at the nursing home every day. It hasn’t been ruled out that visiting family members might have brought the virus into the nursing home, the doctor said.
A medical worker at the nursing home said it’s also difficult to implement quarantine measures because of staff shortages and residents with dementia.
Apparently, Caixin managed to obtain official documents proving the discrepancy: A register of the deceased from the nursing home where they lived showed 15 deaths between Dec. 23 and Feb. 15, and four more on Feb. 18 for a total of 19.
But only one death, that of an 83-year-old male who had lived at the facility, was recorded in the official stats. The others were assigned ambiguous causes of death, like "pneumonia", a strategy that we've reported on previously.
A list of the dead at the social welfare facility obtained by Caixin showed 15 fatalities between Dec. 23 and Feb. 11 and four more Feb. 18. Of the total of 19 fatalities, only the death of an 83-year-old male Feb. 15 was clearly linked to Covid-19. Eight others were attributed to infections, including six to lung infections and two deaths from shock caused by infection. The remaining 10 fatalities were reportedly from other causes, and five of them took place before Feb. 11 when the nursing home started testing for Covid-19.
The nursing home never before had so many deaths in such a short time, according to a staff member who has worked there many years. Except for one 27-year-old female with cholecystitis, all of the 18 others on the fatalities list were in their 80s and 90s and most had diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke or disabilities, according to the list.
It's also notable that the facility is just a few hundred yards from the seamarket alleged to be 'ground zero' for the outbreak.
The facility, just a few hundred yards from the seafood market that may have been the starting point of the outbreak, is a combination senior hospital and nursing home. It is home to 458 senior residents with 190 staff, 21 property management personnel and eight care workers. The facility has been sealed off since Jan. 21 as local authorities stepped up efforts to contain the outbreak. All staff have been asked to stay in the facility.
One doctor who purportedly worked at the facility said he treated a man with a high fever who eventually died of "septic shock" back in December. But given the time that has passed, there would be no way to prove the virus was the cause.
A doctor in the welfare facility’s infirmary said he participated in the treatment of a patient in late December who had a fever as high as 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). The patient died from septic shock possibly caused by infection, but the cause of infection was unknown because no virus check was done, according to the doctor, who was later confirmed infected with Covid-19 himself.
But even without the tests, the symptoms combined with the sharp increase in deaths suggests that dozens are going undercounted in Wuhan's nursing homes.
The doctor said he treated three seniors who died since late December. Several doctors, nurses and attendants have also shown symptoms of lung infection, the doctor said.
A care worker said more than 10 seniors died during the Lunar New Year holiday. At first, they had fever and lost appetite. Those with recurrent fevers were transferred to quarantine rooms but died after a couple of days, the worker said.
"Since they were never confirmed with tests, we don’t know whether they died from the virus," the worker said. "But before the outbreak, even though many of the seniors at the nursing home have chronic diseases, we have never seen so many deaths in such a short time."
And if they're being undercounted in Wuhan, which reportedly had relatively lax controls on who could visit these 'vulnerable' facilities, that means they're likely undercounting deaths in hot-spot nursing homes across the country.