China's official COVID-19 death counts have raised doubts amid an apparent surge of infections in major cities, with only two deaths reported since the government significantly eased its tight restrictions earlier this month despite long queues of vehicles forming at cremation sites.
After health authorities reported two deaths on Dec. 3, four days before the stringent "zero-COVID" policy was drastically eased Dec. 7, the daily COVID death count had remained at zero until Sunday saw two new deaths.
The data did not reflect several local media reports of high-profile figures dying after contracting the virus.
Last week, China stopped releasing data on asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, with many people no longer taking PCR tests.
Chinese news website Caixin reported Sunday that people who died after chronic illnesses had deteriorated due to COVID infection may not be included in the official death counts based on a government notice issued on Dec. 6.
Since Dec. 8, local media have reported the deaths of such people as a 37-year-old former professional soccer player with diabetes, as well as a former senior editor and a former reporter at Chinese newspapers after contracting the virus.
Last Wednesday, a medical student suddenly died while undergoing clinical training at a hospital in Chengdu, southwestern China. The hospital determined the death was caused by heart disease but Caixin said the student had contracted COVID-19.
Some social media users posted doubts about the official data.
At a crematory in central Beijing's Chaoyang district, hearses arrived one after another on Monday, with staff in protective gear carrying caskets.
Reuters cited in a report a U.S. research institute projecting that the death toll from COVID-19 in China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, could exceed 1 million through next year.
According to China's National Health Commission, the total death toll from COVID-19 in the country since the start of the virus outbreak stood at 5,237 as of Sunday.