Hospitals and funeral homes in major cities have been under intense pressure, but the main concern over the health system's ability to cope with surging infections is focused on the countryside.

At a Shanghai pharmacy, Wang Kaiyun, 53, a cleaner in the city who comes from the neighbouring Anhui province, said she was buying medicines for her family back home.

"My husband, my son, my grandson, my mother, they are all infected," she said. "They can't get any medicine, nothing for fever or cough."

Each year, hundreds of millions of people, mostly working in factories near the southern and eastern coasts, return to the countryside for Chinese New Year, due to start on Jan 22.

The holiday travel rush is expected to last for 40 days, from Jan 7 to Feb 15, authorities said.

The state-run China Daily reported on Thursday that rural regions across China were beefing up their medical treatment capacities.

It said a hospital in a rural part of Inner Mongolia where more than 100,000 people live was seeking bidders for a 1.9 million yuan (US$272,308) contract to upgrade its wards into intensive care units.

Liancheng County Central Hospital in the eastern Fujian province was seeking tenders for ambulances and medical devices, ranging from breathing machines to electrocardiogram monitors.

In December, tenders put out by hospitals for key medical equipment were two-to-three times higher than in previous months, according to a Reuters review, suggesting hospitals across the country were scrambling to plug shortages.

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