In Depth: Wuhan’s Ordinary Heroes in Covid-19 Fight
(Wuhan) — Wu Junye, a 30-year-old nurse at Wuhan Third Hospital, and her doctor husband and daughter were all packed to spend the Lunar New Year holiday at Shanghai Disneyland.
Then she received an emergency notice Jan. 22 that all holidays were canceled because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Wu and her husband left their 5-year-old daughter with grandparents in Wuhan and went to the front lines of the city’s desperate fight against a mushrooming epidemic.
That same day project manager Wang Xingyuan of state-owned Wuhan Construction Engineering Group received orders to renovate 15 floors of the Wuhan No. 4 Hospital to create isolation wards ― in 36 hours. He canceled a family vacation in Malaysia.
Hours later, at 3 a.m. Jan. 23, police station chief Guo Zhengli was awakened by an urgent call ordering him to help organize a citywide lockdown that would take effect in seven hours. Deeply disturbed by the unprecedented assignment, the 53-year-old chief of the Xin’an Police Station in Qiaokou District called his officers back to duty.
Nearby, 27-year-old migrant worker Ma Hongquan was filling a temporary job as security guard in a subway station. He noticed a sudden surge of passengers that morning, most of them in a rush with luggage or bags for CT scan images or large shopping sacks. The only thing people were talking about was pneumonia and the lockdown, Ma said.
And thus the Covid-19 epidemic began disrupting the lives of millions of people in Wuhan, China and the rest of the world. Wang Jian, president and co-founder of China’s gene giant BGI Group, arrived at Wuhan shortly after the quarantine began with an offer to donate 20,000 test kits to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.
Yu Fasheng, a professor at Central China Normal University in Wuhan and an expert in emergency management, realized in late January that Wuhan’s disease-control measures were off-point. He and a team of researchers rushed to publish findings that changed the way authorities fought the spread of disease.
In the predawn hours of Feb. 14, 30-year-old Li Shanshan went into labor. Her father took her from hospital to hospital for five hours seeking admission as she showed signs of infection. She eventually delivered a healthy baby daughter in a meeting room of the Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University that was temporarily made an isolation ward for only her.
On Feb. 17, deliveryman He Wenwen worked 27 hours straight, delivering 202 orders for users of Meituan Dianping in an area covering several hospitals. He set a record for daily deliveries. “If I don’t bring the food to them, what can they eat?” He asked.
The stories of these eight in Wuhan show how countless numbers of ordinary people stepped up to the challenges created by the massive epidemic and became heroes and heroines in their own ways, often accepting great personal risk. Their efforts are helping to pull the central China metropolis of 11 million people back to its feet after 50 days of being cut off to contain the virus.
The epidemic and measures to tame the disease have dramatically changed the lives of people in Wuhan, as many of them suffered painful losses. The city in the epicenter of the outbreak has reported almost 67,000 cases of the new disease ― more than 83% of national figure and almost half the worldwide total ― with more than 1,000 deaths.
On Friday, Wuhan recorded 74 new infections, continuing a downward trend as the daily count of new cases nationwide dropped below 100 for the first time since the Wuhan lockdown.
Things changed dramatically in Wuhan on Jan. 20 when leading epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan confirmed in a TV interview that the viral pneumonia that originated in Wuhan was spreading from person to person. Before that, officials said repeatedly that there was neither person-to-person transmission nor infection among medical workers.
Caixin’s coverage of the new coronavirus
Even so, based on her own professional judgment as a nurse, Wu Junye said she told family members to wear masks and avoid gatherings. Third Hospital where she and her husband work had been scrambling to treat a rising number of patients with pneumonia-like symptoms since early January. When they were called back to work, she said, their only choice was to leave their daughter with the grandparents.
“It was a difficult decision as I had never left my daughter for more than three days,” Wu said. “But we had to do it since both my husband and I are medical workers, exposed to greater infection risks. We had to protect her.”
Construction project manager Wang Xingyuan had no time to think of how to accomplish his seemingly impossible assignment to create isolation wards. He inspected the site at the No. 4 Hospital and was stunned by what he saw. The hospital was swamped with patients and countless people were in a 100-meter queue outside. On that day, the Wuhan municipal health authority designated the No. 4 Hospital and six other institutions to treat fever patients, many of them infected by the novel coronavirus.
Wang Xingyuan, project manager at Wuhan Construction Group, at the building site of Huoshenshan Hospital.
A battle that must be fought
Police station chief Guo Zhengli and his officers faced a tough first week after the city lockdown as they sought to ease panic while figuring out what they should do. The area overseen by Guo’s station is home to a large number of small businesses run by people from outside Wuhan. As the city was shuttered, many of them were stranded. People flooded into Guo’s office asking for help leaving Wuhan.
“I had no idea what to do,” Guo said.
Police officers were also ordered to assist community managers in visiting local households and recording residents’ health conditions. And police stations were assigned to help transport patients to hospitals amid a shortage of ambulances and the public transit shutdown. This exposed police officers to greater risks, and one of Guo’s colleagues was later infected.
“Those were the most difficult days, and none of us was certain about what to do,” Guo said. “The only thing we could do was stick to our duty.”
Lacking protective gear and disinfection measures, Guo and his officers diluted two bottles of ethanol to make a larger quantity of 75% alcohol to spray after transporting fever patients.
“Of course we were scared,” Guo said. “But everyone was scared, and as policemen we had to do it.”
In the morning of Jan. 24, construction manager Wang and his team miraculously completed the isolation wards for the No. 4 Hospital after 30 hours of intensive work. There was no time to relax. That afternoon, Wang’s team arrived at the Caidian District in the suburbs to participate in the construction of the Huoshenshan Hospital, an emergency facility built to receive severe Covid-19 patients. This time, the entire new hospital had to be completed in 10 days.
“When I arrived at the site, some work had started, but the construction plan was not yet finished,” Wang said. “I thought it was even more impossible than the project for No. 4 Hospital.”
But by Feb. 8, the last section of the Huoshenshan Hospital was completed. By then, Wang and his colleagues had worked 13 days on construction sites without going home. When they finally left the site that night, “for the first time in so many days we had the time to look at the sky. … Everyone smiled to tears,” Wang said.
Third Hospital’s Wu Junye fought an even riskier battle. One patient in the nurse’s department had a high fever after surgery and was diagnosed as highly suspect for Covid-19 infection. Wu volunteered to take full-time care of the patient, despite a limited supply of protective gear.
“I knew it was dangerous,” Wu said. “But all other nurses in my department were young girls, and I didn’t want them to take the risk.”
The patient later recovered from the fever but was confirmed with coronavirus infection. The day after the patient was transferred to an isolation ward, Wu showed symptoms. Several days later, she was hospitalized and tested positive for the virus.
Police officer Guo Zhengli inspects a residential community under lockdown.
If we could do it earlier…
A severe shortage of test kits in the early days of the outbreak has been blamed for Wuhan losing its chance to contain the rapid spread of the disease and save many lives. A large number of suspect patients whose diagnoses couldn’t be confirmed with lab tests were unable to be hospitalized and missed the best opportunities to be cured.
“There were so many suspect patients who couldn’t be confirmed and had to travel back and forth between their homes and hospitals, causing severe cross-infection,” said Wang Jian, the BGI Group chief who reached Wuhan shortly after the quarantine.
BGI Chairman Wang Jian explains new genetic technology in fighting the epidemic.
The 65-year-old scientist-entrepreneur and his team were known for their contribution in a 2003 outbreak in decoding the SARS coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. The team sequenced the genome of the SARS virus in 36 hours, developed a test kit in 96 hours and produced 300,000 kits for donation.
This time, BGI is among several businesses that detected and started to sequence the novel coronavirus as early as late December. But most of their research results were not made public by officials until mid-January.
Despite the lack of testing capacity by official institutions, companies like BGI were not allowed to deliver the new virus tests until Jan. 18 when the National Health Commission cleared several third-party testing institutions to assist Wuhan’s Disease Control and Prevention Center (Wuhan CDC). But even after that, most of BGI’s testing capacity remained idle as samples were mainly sent to the Wuhan CDC.
“I’ve submitted several applications to fight the battle and am ready for the call,” Wang told Caixin in an interview Jan. 27. “But all I can do now is wait in the hotel.”
That changed Jan. 29 when Wang attended a meeting with Wuhan’s top leadership. At the meeting, officials asked BGI to lead construction of a new lab with a capacity to quickly test more than 10,000 samples.
On Feb. 10, the Huo Yan laboratory run by BGI with capacity designed to handle 10,000 samples daily to detect SARS-CoV-2 officially started operation in Wuhan. The lab’s daily testing capacity was increased to 20,000 on Feb. 29. So far, BGI has set up similar labs in nine cities across the country with total daily testing capacity of 400,000 samples.
But Wang said business entities like BGI should have played a larger role sooner in helping Wuhan’s fight against the virus.
“If the Huo Yan lab could have played its function one week earlier, it would have been better,” Wang said.
Pushing for changes
Yu Fasheng, the Central China Normal University emergency management expert, spotted a flaw in disease containment efforts in late January. As most Wuhan hospitals were overwhelmed by the early surge of patients, the city government asked suspect and mild patients to stay in home isolation while only those with severe symptoms could be admitted by hospitals.
Yu Fasheng calls for emergent quarantine measures to isolate all patients.
But such a measure would only allow the disease to spread further as every patient not in a hospital would become a moving source of infection, Yu said.
“The priority should be to isolate the infection sources,” he said.
On Feb. 1, Yu and 15 researchers completed a paper highlighting the importance of isolating suspect patients to prevent cross-infection among families and in communities. In the paper, Yu suggested using civilian facilities such as hotels and resorts as quarantine venues to quickly accommodate as many patients as possible. The paper was submitted to top officials in Hubei and Beijing.
“I tried every means in hopes it could be read by the leadership,” Yu said.
On Feb. 2, the Wuhan disease control authority announced a plan to place all suspect and mild patients under centralized quarantine, reversing the previous approach and following Yu’s suggestions.
Hopes amid despair
For Li Shanshan as well as most everyone else in Wuhan, February was a dramatic month full of despair and hope. Early in the month, her husband, mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law all fell sick and were sent to quarantine sites for Covid-19, just as Li was in her final days of pregnancy.
Before dawn Feb. 14, Li’s water broke. Her father drove her to a nearby maternity hospital, but she was denied admission because a CT scan showed lung infection and the hospital was not qualified to receive Covid-19 patients. Her father took her to other hospitals over the next five hours in search of a bed.
Li Shanshan views her daughter’s photo in an isolation ward.
At about 6 in the morning, Li delivered a baby girl in the Renmin Hospital conference room. The child, her second daughter, tested negative for the virus. Since then, Li spent nearly a month alone in the temporary ward to recover and could only watch her baby through video calls with her father.
On Feb. 23, Li was told by doctors that her husband was in critical condition and in danger of dying at the Leishenshan Hospital for severe patients. But good news came three days later that he survived and was recovering.
On Feb. 28, Li was discharged and moved to a quarantine site for 14 days of post-recovery observation. After that, she will be free to meet her new daughter at home. At the same time, she learned that all her family members are steadily recovering.
On March 1, Li wrote a post on her social media account: “Here comes the spring, a season full of flowers and happiness. Although this year is not as good as it always is, I believe it will get better and better.”
Finding meaning in work
With public transit suspended and communities isolated, Wuhan deliveryman He Wenwen found he was never so needed serving an area that includes a number of hospitals. He said he never hesitated to deliver for patients in hospitals, although some friends warned him about the risk of infection.
He Wenwen starts his work delivering food in the evening.
Many times, He received orders from anonymous guests who paid for food and drinks to be delivered to unnamed frontline medical workers. He said he was touched by such moves.
“Sending food to medical workers makes me feel my job has some extra meaning,” He said.
On Feb. 24, the nurse Wu Junye fully recovered from the disease and returned to work. She leads a team of 18 nurses in charge of 40 patients. They often take five-hour shifts during which they can’t eat, drink or even go to the bathroom to reduce waste of protective gowns.
During her shifts, Wu said she likes to talk with patients and share her experiences fighting the disease.
“I hope they can have confidence,” she said. “Only with the desire to live can they survive. I don’t want to see them give up.”
Wu Yunjie returns to her nursing job after recovering from Covid-19.
After subways were closed, the migrant worker Ma Hongquan found a new job as a cleaner in the Tongji Hospital. He was trained to work in isolation wards dealing with medical wastes and garbage from patients. Everyday, Ma spent hours in protective gowns cleaning 18 wards. Although that exposed him to infection risks, he enjoyed the job and made friends with the patients.
Ma said he is happy to feel needed. He said he hopes to keep this job until the outbreak ends and to see all patients leave the hospital.
Police station chief Guo Zhengli and his colleagues have worked 40 days in a row. By mid-February, they sent all 70 patients in their area to quarantine sites or hospitals. But as lockdown measures remain in Wuhan’s residential areas, Guo has been busy inspecting communities while helping residents to solve daily issues.
Guo said he hopes the outbreak will end soon so he can have a good night’s sleep, but he knows that there will be more work waiting.
Ma Hongquan cleans the wards at Tongjin Hospital.
Yu Fasheng also said it is too early to think about relaxing. He said he plans to lead his research team in continuing to investigate where the virus originated and how it spread. Yu said it is also time to study reforms to China’s national emergency management system.
After the SARS outbreak in 2003, China invested 730 million yuan ($105 million) to set up an infectious disease reporting system aiming to detect any potential outbreak. However, the system failed in Wuhan.
Yu said an effective mechanism for detecting public health crises should allow for hospitals and doctors, media and the public to send out warnings.
“In the face of major public risks, no suspicions should be overlooked,” Yu said. Wuhan has paid a heavy price, Yu said. “Nothing should become the reason to miss the best prevention opportunity.”
Contact reporter Han Wei (firstname.lastname@example.org) and editor Bob Simison (email@example.com)
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