Caixin
Feb 14, 2020 08:33 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Coronavirus Has Infected More Than 1,700 Medical Workers

A medical worker cares for a coronavirus patient in Wuhan, Hubei province. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin
A medical worker cares for a coronavirus patient in Wuhan, Hubei province. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin
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More than 1,700 medical workers on the frontlines of China’s battle against the new coronavirus have fallen ill from it, including 1,502 in the epicenter of Hubei province. Six have died.

The figures were disclosed at a press conference Friday by China’s National Health Commission deputy head Zeng Yixin, who said they were current as of Tuesday. It’s the first time China has released an official count of infections among medical workers.

Among the six dead are Li Wenliang, the hero doctor who sounded an early alarm about the human spread of the new virus before the information was made public, and was punished by authorities for doing so. His death last week from the virus sparked an outpouring of grief and anger in China and abroad.

The disclosure from China’s top health authority follows its release on Tuesday of new guidelines intended to improve the working conditions, as well as the physical and mental health, of frontline medical staff.

For some, they have come too late. Frontline health workers in Wuhan were among the first to care for patients with the new disease, before there was official recognition that it was being transmitted between people.

Wuhan’s Municipal Health Committee released an internal notice on treating cases of unknown pneumonia on Dec. 30. It emphasized two things: strict reporting of information back up the chain, and no unauthorized disclosures.

It was Jan. 20 before Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan revealed publicly that 14 medical staff had been infected with coronavirus, evidence that the disease was transmitting between people.

Doctors in Wuhan, where 1,102 health workers are said to be infected, have told Caixin how the large number of medical staff contracting the disease has created cross-infections in hospitals and battered morale.

Caixin understands that in one case, a respiratory surgeon at Xinhua Hospital, near the South China Seafood Market where the disease is believed to have first spread to humans, fell ill with a fever on Jan. 6. X-rays of his lung showed signs of viral pneumonia.

On Jan. 11, a neurologist who had been in contact with patients suspected of having the disease also began to show symptoms, which worsened by Jan. 16. Before long, the disease was spreading among the hospital’s 900 or so staff, to dermatologists, lab technicians, dentists and security guards.

On Jan. 16, Liang Wudong, the head of the ear, nose and throat department, developed a fever and chills. Two days later the 60-year-old specialist was transferred to Jinyintan Hospital, the hospital designated to treat the new disease.

Liang became the first medical worker to die of the virus on Jan. 25.

It was also at Xinhua Hospital that doctors were told not to give chest X-rays that showed signs of viral pneumonia to patients, but instead to the hospital’s infection management department. A number of doctors interviewed by Caixin said they had been instructed that those diagnosed with viral pneumonia were to be notified by phone.

Contact reporter Flynn Murphy (flynnmurphy@caixin.com) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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