BEIJING -- A massive jump in coronavirus cases in Hubei Province, the center of the epidemic, was reported Wednesday after a change in criteria, providing fodder to skeptics of the government's figures.
The provincial tally swelled by 14,840 in one day to 48,206, according to the government's daily report Thursday. Of the new cases, 13,332 were "clinically diagnosed" based on symptoms rather than tests that have proved somewhat unreliable.
Chinese health authorities track "suspected" and "confirmed" cases of the disease, recently dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization.
Suspected cases include people who have recently been to outbreak hot spots including the Hubei Province capital of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, and show symptoms such as fever or low white blood cell counts. Cases are counted as confirmed only if nucleic-acid testing of nasal or throat swabs comes back positive for the pathogen.
But the accuracy of these tests has been questioned in Wuhan. Many patients reportedly have tested negative even while showing clear symptoms of the virus, such as fever and pneumonia.
With medical facilities short on space, many suspected coronavirus carriers have been quarantined at home rather than admitted to hospitals. Experts, citing the likelihood of false negatives, say this practice has only exposed more people to the virus.
Locals have long suspected that the official counts are too low.
China's National Health Commission has changed its reporting guidelines to address this criticism. It added a new "clinically diagnosed" category for Hubei Province only, covering suspected COVID-19 patients with pneumonia confirmed via CT scan.
Because CT scans can be run in a matter of minutes, hospitals can more easily catch likely cases that may have slipped through the cracks under the previous testing regime, and admit such patients to avoid a potentially risky home quarantine.
Public anger of the government's handling of the disease has mounted, reaching a fever pitch after the death last week of Li Wenliang, a doctor who sounded the alarm early about the coronavirus but was punished by local police.
Amid this outrage, state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday that the Communist Party has removed the top party officials of Hubei Province and Wuhan. The Hubei Province chief, Jiang Chaoliang, was replaced by Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, a close ally of President Xi Jinping.