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China lifts travel restrictions despite surging COVID cases, prompting concern in U.S. and other nations

COVID-19 cases surge in China
Japan launches new restrictions for travelers from China 01:46

Tokyo — Many hospitals and funeral homes say they're being overwhelmed by a worsening COVID-19 outbreak in China, even as the government reports just a handful of new deaths from the virus. The surge in cases across China is drawing a response from other countries, including the U.S.

Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia have already said they will require virus tests for visitors from China, and Japanese authorities have sharply restricted the number of flights to and from China. 

U.S. officials are considering similar measures, with officials telling CBS News on Wednesday that concern is mounting over the rise in infections and the lack of transparent data from Beijing, which is making it increasingly difficult for public health officials to ensure that they'll be able to identify any potential new variants and take prompt measures to reduce the spread. 

[Update: The U.S. will require a negative COVID test for travelers from China starting Jan. 5. Read more here.]

Packed hospitals contradict China's COVID-19 data 01:51

The U.S. officials told CBS News that, along with international partners, Washington was considering "potential steps" that could be taken to monitor the rising cases in China, identify any potential new variants of concern that emerge there, and "to protect the American people."

Among the new restrictions imposed by Japan, travelers from China entering the country and found to have COVID-19 will have to quarantine at a designated facility for one week.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the new restrictions were temporary — spurred by an information void about the true state of the pandemic in China.

Since dramatically reversing its years-old "zero-COVID" policy, which aimed to stamp out every case of the coronavirus, China has been lifting restrictions quickly. Authorities plan to remove all travel bans early next year — a move likely to trigger a flood of Chinese travelers abroad for the new year holiday after nearly three years of rolling lockdowns under the draconian zero-COVID approach.

News that international inbound travelers won't have to go through quarantine, coupled with the lifting of a ban on passports being issued or renewed for Chinese nationals, have got people excited across the vast country.

Within 15 minutes of the policy change being announced, searches for popular international destinations had increased 10-fold, with popular Chinese travel booking site Qunar reporting a seven-fold increase in international flight searches.

But relief over the end of lockdowns in China has been tempered, and much of the nation is now in extreme distress. Some estimates suggest more than half of all residents in Beijing are currently infected with the virus.

New study estimates COVID deaths could reach 322,000 in China by April 05:05

Dr. Howard Bernstein said the hospital where he works in Beijing has run out of beds and "is just overwhelmed from top to bottom.

While Chinese officials say COVID has claimed only about 5,000 lives, recent scenes at funeral homes tell a grimmer story. The lines of coffins at one unidentified building in northern China this week seem endless.

By at least one estimate, the explosion of cases in China, where many people remain unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, could kill 1 million people by the end of 2023, and it is also threatening to unleash new, more dangerous mutations of the virus. 

CBS News' Tucker Reals, Gillian Morley and Shuai Zhang contributed to this report.

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