Chinese health officials reported 15,152 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the global total past 60,000.
The sudden increase in numbers occurred mainly in Hubei province – the epicenter of the epidemic – with an increase of 14,840 confirmed cases, more than nine times the 1,638 new infections reported the previous day.
The new figures do not indicate the rapid spread of the virus overnight in Hubei, but a change in the way patients are counted there.
Under new notification requirements, cases are considered confirmed based on symptoms and lung CT scan.
Previously, confirmation depended on a laboratory test – a time-consuming requirement that left a large stock of suspect cases untested.
Many critically ill patients with symptoms, but no confirmation of infection, complained that they were being removed from hospitals. An unknown number died of the viral disease – known as COVID-19 – without ever being registered as a confirmed case.
Nearly 90% of new cases reported on Thursday were patients with a "clinical diagnosis", which means they were confirmed under the new rules.
Wang Chen, dean of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said Chinese media reported on Thursday that the change in requirements was "extremely necessary" because the laboratory test – which detects a specific sequence of nucleic acids – was not sufficiently accurate.
"Many patients who appeared to be [infected with COVID-19] based on their epidemiological history, contact history and clinical symptoms were unable to test positive for the nucleic acid test and were listed as" suspicious cases " ", he said.
He said the test kits generally failed to detect infections accurately and suggested that the new criteria would provide a better measure of the scale of the epidemic.
Chinese officials have been projecting optimism in recent days about the virus being under control, pointing to a steady decrease in the rate of new confirmations.
The new numbers in Hubei seem to burst that bubble, bringing official statistics closer to reality.
It is also possibly good news for many of the patients in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, where the outbreak began, who were unable to access hospitals without a confirmed diagnosis – although there is still an urgent shortage of facilities, staff and medical supplies.
Also on Thursday, the central authorities dismissed the Communist Party chiefs from the provinces of Wuhan and Hubei, replacing them with high-ranking officials known for their background in "maintaining stability" and a history of working closely with the president. of the party and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The head of the Hubei party was replaced by Ying Yong, the former mayor of Shanghai, while the leader of the Wuhan party was replaced by Wang Zhonglin, secretary of the party in the capital of Shandong Province, Jinan.
Central authorities are purging local authorities in Hubei as public punishment for failing to control the epidemic from the start. The concealment by local authorities of the severity of the outbreak and the silence of those who spoke out on the matter, including a doctor who later died of COVID-19, sparked fury and demanded responsibility across China.
Thursday's changes follow the resignation of two health officials in Hubei on Tuesday, the Communist Party secretary and director of the provincial health commission.
The political upheaval may have been programmed to coincide with the change in reporting standards, so that centrally appointed newcomers can be seen as taking control and correcting the crisis, compared to local officials who are now taking the blame for allowing the spread of the virus.
The change in reporting requirements was only implemented in Hubei province, not in the rest of China.
Hubei also reported 244 new deaths after previous reports 242. The worldwide death toll now exceeds 1,300.