- Chinese officials said that 1,716 healthcare workers in China have been infected by the coronavirus. Six of them are dead.
- “Health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, adding that “we need to know more ” about how they are getting sick.
- Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in December, is also home to 1,102 infected staff.
- On Friday, Beijing’s National Health Commission disclosed for the first time that nearly half a million people have come in contact with infected patients.
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As coronavirus cases continue to swell – impacting nearly 64,000 people and killing some 1,380 – a particularly vulnerable population is bearing the brunt of this epidemic: medical staff.
As of Friday, 1,716 healthcare workers who were treating patients in China have been infected. Six are dead, National Health Commission Vice Minister Zeng Yixin said at a news conference, according to Reuters.
“At present, the duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy; their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great, and the risk of infection is high,” he said.
Zeng said that the current death toll among healthcare workers was reported on Tuesday so it remains unclear whether the coronavirus has killed more of them in the days since. As the number of staff members contracting coronavirus rises, officials need to analyse how many of them were infected in hospitals, he noted, per Reuters.
At a World Health Organisation media briefing on Friday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, echoed this sentiment.
“Health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together,” he said, adding that “we need to know more ” about how they are getting sick.
A nurse went viral speaking out about her fears
A nurse wrote on Weibo that she is among almost 150 people who work at Wuhan Central Hospital and have either been infected or are suspected to have the coronavirus, CNN found. Quarantined at home since last month, the unidentified nurse was only on Tuesday admitted to the same hospital where she is an employee.
“The floor I live on is basically filled with colleagues from my hospital,” she said on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. “These are mostly double or triple rooms, with my colleagues’ names and bed numbers clearly written in black and white on the doors.”
The nurse added that she holds her breath when her fellow healthcare workers enter the room to check on her, saying, “I’m afraid the virus inside my body will come out and infect these colleagues who are still standing fast on the frontline.”
Of the infected medical workers, 1,102 are located in Wuhan alone, and another 400 became ill elsewhere in the Hubei province, Zeng said, the Daily Mail reported.
Wuhan was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in December and the threat level skyrocketed for multiple reasons, including a shortage of medical resources to handle the deluge of highly contagious patients.
Not allowed to ‘eat, drink or use toilets’
For starters, China has less than two physicians for every 10,000 residents, the WHO found. Add to that a shortage of masks and protective gear and you have an additional strain on the already overworked medical staff, making them even more susceptible to the virus while treating patients on the frontline.
Even test kits were reserved only for patients with the most severe symptoms, the South China Morning Post reported. This hampered diagnoses and created a supply shortage, prompting patients to liken getting a kit to winning the lottery.
The National Health Commission on Thursday provided a glimpse into the medical staff’s grim working conditions: To ward off hunger, the staff at Peking Union Medical College Hospital eat chocolate and eggs before starting longer-than-normal shifts. Also, clad in face masks, goggles, gloves, and protective gowns – which cause imprints and even scars – they’re not allowed to “eat, drink or use toilets” while on a shift in infectious disease wards, according to the National Health Commission.
Zhou Jun, of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, added, “Time is so precious that they stay in the wards all time” because they lose time when using restrooms and taking off their protective gear, which in and of itself can’t be reused or wasted.
Huashan Hospital has given workers diapers, but Vice President Ma Xin said most don’t need them because “wearing the protective clothing, one will be drenched to the skin and then they don’t need to urinate much.”
No information, followed by misinformation
Up next is a lack of knowledge about the coronavirus so gastrointestinal symptoms weren’t initially recognised as warning signs. That allowing one coronavirus patient, who came to the hospital with abdominal issues and was sent to the surgical ward, to infect 10 medical staff in Wuhan.
Similarly, it wasn’t known that the coronavirus could spread from one person to another.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of the first 425 coronavirus cases in Wuhan, revealing that seven health care workers had been diagnosed with the illness by January 11.
“There is evidence that human-to-human transmission has occurred among close contacts since the middle of December 2019,” the study says.
This issue went hand-in-glove with the Chinese government’s failure to report cases right away because CNN found the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission saying on January 11 that “as of now, no infection among medical staff has been found,” adding that there was “no clear evidence for human-to-human transmission.”
The fact that medical workers were among the patients was only revealed on January 20 when Zhong Nanshan, a government-appointed respiratory expert, said on CCTV on January 20 that the coronavirus could be transmitted between people, CNN reported. This dovetailed with the Lancet saying that the first patient likely began showing symptoms on December 1 – a full month before Chinese officials reported the illness to the WHO.
If anything, the government is accused of cracking down on the flow of information about the coronavirus. Poynter said citizens accused of spreading rumours were arrested, and TVB, a Hong Kong news outlet, said journalists, including one of its own, had been detained while trying to cover the outbreak.
This censoring triggered outrage when a whistleblower doctor,Li Wenliang, died of the coronavirus on February 7. He was silenced by police – and forced to sign a letter admitting to “making false comments” – for sounding the alarm to his medical school peers on December 30 about a respiratory illness that presented like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and had led to multiple people being quarantined at the Wuhan Central Hospital.
Nearly half a million people have come in contact with infected patients
As of Friday, the National Health Commission website doesn’t mention the infected healthcare workers – that information was revealed by the State Council at a briefing on medical workers’s safety, CNN said – but officials have disclosed a much higher number of possible cases than previously reported.
“So far, 493,067 people have been identified as having had close contact with infected patients. 177,984 are now under medical observation,” the website reads.
The memory of SARS haunts China and with good reason. By May 2003, 966 medical workers made up 18% of China’s 5,328 cases, its ministry said, CNN reported. For now at least, that percentage is much lower vis a vis the coronavirus with 1,716 sickened healthcare staff accounting for about 3% of confirmed cases.
Addressing that point on Friday, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said, “We’ve always known that healthcare workers are on the front line.” When looking at the “percentage of overall cases, although it’s a tragic situation for the health workers … it is a lower percentage than has occurred” in other outbreaks, he added.
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