The risk of the deadly coronavirus to China’s frontline health staff is in sharp focus with health authorities announcing that 1,303 more medical workers had been diagnosed with or were suspected of having the disease.
The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday that by February 11 there were more than 3,000 coronavirus cases among medical workers, 1,716 of whom had tested positive and showed symptoms.
Hours after the new numbers were released, authorities announced that Liu Zhiming, head of Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in central China, died aged 50.
Liu, a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in late January and had been in a critical condition for days, his wife told Red Star News, a news site operated by Chengdu Media Group.
He is the second medical worker to die from the disease at the hospital in a week; 59-year-old nurse Liu Fan died on Friday.
Infections among medical workers have triggered widespread anger, particularly after it emerged that some doctors had raised concerns about the dangers but were ignored or silenced.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, died on February 7 after contracting the virus from a cataract patient in early January.
He was told by police not to talk about the outbreak after a message he sent to medical school alumni about a “Sars-like virus” was shared widely online.
By last week, more than 230 staff at Li’s hospital had the virus, China News Weekly, published by the official China News Service, reported on Tuesday.
The report said that one of Li’s colleagues was silenced by authorities after she twice tried to notify the hospital about possible human-to-human transmission.
Ai Fen, director of the hospital’s emergency department, was quoted as saying that she was reprimanded by the hospital’s disciplinary committee on January 2 after she told the hospital on December 30 and January 1 about cases of suspected human-to-human transmission in patients with no connection to a seafood and meat market linked to the outbreak.
“You have no professional principles, you are creating rumours and causing trouble. Your irresponsible behaviour creates social panic, and affects the growth and stability of Wuhan,” the committee leader was quoted as saying to her.
After Ai was disciplined, Wuhan Central Hospital ordered all staff to keep quiet about the outbreak, according to the report.
“At the beginning, only a few hospital departments, such as the emergency and respiratory departments, knew more about the disease,” Ai was quoted as saying.
She added that, despite the surge in coronavirus cases in early January, most hospital staff let down their guard because it was widely believed before January 15 that there was no human-to-human transmission.
Wuhan’s health commission first announced 27 cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown cause” on December 31, but said that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
China only confirmed human-to-human transmission on January 20, three days before Wuhan, with its population of 11 million, went on lockdown.
According to the CDC report, 1,080 of the first group of infected medical personnel were in Wuhan, and of those 191 were in a “severe or critical” condition.
In early January, the proportion of Wuhan’s infected health workers in a severe or critical condition was as high as 38.9 per cent.
Elsewhere in Hubei province, 394 medics were confirmed infected and 10.4 per cent, or 41, were in a severe or critical condition.
At one point in early January, up to 45 per cent of the infected medical workers throughout the country were severe or critical cases, the report said.
National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui admitted in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday that a lack of timely treatment and overstretched hospital resources meant that Wuhan had a higher proportion of severe cases compared to the rest of the country.
“Particularly in the initial stages, because outbreak prevention and control measures were not implemented in time, there were still many community cases that were not treated in time,” Jiao said.
“Many patients’ conditions turn from mild to severe during these 10 days while they are waiting for treatment. So this gap in medical resources needed by the public has continued to widen, leading to many communities where sick people are unable to receive timely treatment.”
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.