China has rung in the Lunar New Year with people praying for health after three years of stress and financial hardship under the pandemic, as officials report almost 13,000 new deaths caused by the virus in the week to January 19.
Queues stretched for about one kilometre outside the iconic Lama temple in Beijing, which had been repeatedly shut before COVID-19 restrictions ended in early December, with thousands of people waiting for their turn to pray for their loved ones.
One Beijing resident said she wished the Year of the Rabbit would bring "health to everyone".
"I think this wave of the pandemic is gone," said the 57-year-old, who only gave her last name, Fang.
"I didn't get the virus, but my husband and everyone in my family did. I still think it's important to protect ourselves."
Officials reported almost 13,000 deaths related to COVID in hospitals from January 13 to 19, adding to the almost 60,000 in the month or so before that.
Chinese health experts say the wave of infections across the country has already peaked.
The death toll update, from China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, comes amid doubts over Beijing's data transparency and remains extremely low by global standards.
Hospitals and funeral homes have been overwhelmed since China abandoned the world's strictest regime of COVID controls and mass testing on December 7 in an abrupt policy U-turn, which followed historic protests against the curbs.
The death count reported by Chinese authorities excludes those who died at home and some doctors have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.
China on January 14 reported almost 60,000 COVID-related deaths in hospitals between December 8 and January 12 - a huge increase from the 5000-plus deaths reported previously during the entire pandemic period.
Spending by funeral homes on items from body bags to cremation ovens has risen in many provinces, documents show - one of several indications of COVID's deadly impact in China.
Some health experts expect more than one million people will die from the disease in China this year, with British-based health data firm Airfinity forecasting COVID fatalities could hit 36,000 a day this week.
As millions of migrant workers return home for Lunar New Year celebrations, health experts are particularly concerned about people living in China's vast countryside, where medical facilities are poor compared with those in affluent coastal areas.
About 110 million railway passenger trips are estimated to have been made from January 7 to 21, the first 15 days of the 40-day Lunar New Year travel rush - up 28 per cent year-on-year, People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper reported.
A total of 26.23 million trips were made on the Lunar New Year eve via railway, highway, ships and airplanes - half the pre-pandemic levels but up 50.8 per cent from last year, state-run CCTV reported.
The mass movement of people during the holiday period could spread the pandemic, boosting infections in some areas, but a second COVID wave is unlikely in the near term, China Center for Disease Control and Prevention chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on Saturday on the Weibo social media platform.
The possibility of a big COVID rebound in China in the next two or three months is remote as 80 per cent of people have been infected, Wu said.