China’s Doctors, Fighting the Coronavirus, Beg for Masks

by on February 16, 2020

In the hospital where Yu Yajie works, nurses, doctors and other medical professionals fighting the new coronavirus have also been fighting dire shortages. They have used tape to patch up battered protective masks, repeatedly reused goggles meant for one-time use, and wrapped their shoes in plastic bags for lack of specialized coverings.

Ms. Yu is now lying at home, feverish and fearful that she has been infected with the virus. She and other employees at the hospital said a lack of protective wear had left medical workers like her vulnerable in Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the heart of the epidemic that has engulfed this region.

“There are risks — there simply aren’t enough resources,” Ms. Yu, an administrator at Wuhan Central Hospital, said in a brief telephone interview, adding that she was too weak to speak at length.

Chinese medical workers at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus epidemic are often becoming its victims, partly because of government missteps and logistical hurdles.

After the virus emerged in Wuhan late last year, city leaders played down its risks, so doctors didn’t take precautions. When the outbreak could no longer be ignored, officials imposed a lockdown on Wuhan that expanded across the surrounding Hubei Province and then swaths of China. The vast travel cordons may have slowed the epidemic, but have also slowed deliveries into Hubei, leaving medical workers short of protective wear.

On Friday, the Chinese government for the first time disclosed the toll the outbreak was taking on hospital employees: 1,716 medical workers had contracted the virus, including 1,502 in Wuhan, and six had died.

The strength — or vulnerability — of China’s medical workers could shape how well the Communist Party weathers its worst political crisis in years. Li Wenliang, a doctor, died from the coronavirus last week, after he had been punished by the police for warning friends of the outbreak. His death ignited fury in China, where he was lionized as a medical martyr to officials who put political control ahead of health.

“Of course I’m nervous about getting infected,” said Cai Yi, head of the division of pain management at Wuhan Central Hospital, the same hospital where Dr. Li had worked. “But if we let ourselves be nervous, then what would happen to the people?”

China’s president and Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, has praised hospital workers in Hubei as heroes, and mobilized the country in a “people’s war” against the coronavirus. But hospital workers in Wuhan said they often felt frustrated and alone.

Some have scrambled to buy protective gear with their own money, begged from friends, or relied on donations from other parts of China and abroad. Others have avoided eating and drinking for long stretches because going to the toilet meant discarding safety gownsthat they would not be able to replace. Younger staff are assigned to the more critical cases, with the expectation that if they get sick they would be more likely to recover.

Even as Chinese officials disclosed how many medical workers had been sickened and killed by the virus, key questions remain, experts said, including how the workers became infected and whether the rate of transmission was slowing. Such omissions could make it more difficult for other countries to assess and reduce their own risks.

“Clearly it would have been useful for other parts of China who are beginning to struggle with this outbreak as well for the rest of the world to have these types of data as soon as possible,” said Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said it is seeking more information about the time period and circumstances surrounding the infections of health care workers.

“This is a critical piece of information, because health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together,” Dr. Tedros said.

Doctors and other hospital workers have also come under pressure not to speak out. But many do, out of desperation.

“For the first time, I felt helpless confronting the system,” Chang Le, a doctor at Hankou Hospital in Wuhan, said in an online message pleading for more medical masks. His plea was deleted by the censors. “It’s only today that I’ve grasped just how hard it is for us front line medical workers.”

The Chinese government has acknowledged problems in medical supplies for Hubei, and repeatedly promised to accelerate deliveries.

Strains in medical supplies may have been unavoidable as the virus spread at a pace that seemed to catch the government off guard. But the sweeping restrictions across China to contain the virus also slowed production and delivery of much-needed medical equipment, said doctors, factory managers, and aid workers.

Pervasive road checks and travel restrictions have held up shipments. Factories have faced difficulty increasing production because workers and raw materials have been blocked by lockdowns. Local governments have hoarded supplies. China’s state-controlled Red Cross has dominated distribution of donations, creating a bottleneck that infuriated hospital employees.

With medical supplies so scarce, many health care workers in Wuhan also said they had to accept substandard gowns, gloves and masks. Outside the Wuhan Fourth Hospital, medical workers waited near a truck as a delivery man in a full-body medical suit handed down boxes of masks and gowns. One hospital worker explained that the gowns were notof a high enough gradeto withstand a viral contagion.

“But this is all we could get,” she said. She declined to give her name. “We just have to accept what they send us.”

Life has become a scramble, many said: treating patients for much of the day; hunting for protective gear for the rest. The shortage has forced employees, like Dr. Chang, from the city’s hospitals to appeal for donations of N95 masks — a type of respirator best suited to guarding against viruses — and other personal protective equipment on Chinese social media sites.

Dr. Peng Zhiyong, 53, head of the department of critical care medicine at Wuhan University’s Zhongnan Hospital, said in an interview this week that his team was running dangerously low on full-body medical suits and masks. We can only get one break during the entire day,” he said. “Just one, to drink water and eat. Because if you leave, you don’t have any new suits to get back into.”

The first time the authorities publicly acknowledged a problem with medical worker infections was on Jan. 20, when an official expert revealed that 14 had been infected by a single patient. Until the government released details on Friday, details were scattershot, emerging in studies and news reports.

Dr. Peng and other researchers wrote that 40 health care professionals at his hospital had been infected in January, a third of the cases included in a studypublished last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A 61-year-old doctor died nine days after contracting the virus from a patient, according to a report by the newspaper China Philanthropy Times.

Another doctor had started to show symptoms early last month, before medical professionals knew to take extra precautions, according to the state-run Health Times newspaper. He died this past Monday.

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, infections of medical workers became a source of anger after the government suppressed information for months. These workers made up 15 percent of confirmed cases, according to an expert, Xu Dezhong, quoted by Xinhua, China’s official news agency. About 1 percent of the medical workers infected with SARS died.

The pleas from hospitals across Hubei have inspired an outpouring of donations from Chinese businesses, workers and charities. But the surge in demand for medical equipment has been hard for suppliers to meet, especially under the lockdown.

Officials in the city of Xiantao in Hubei at first told some companies making protective medical clothing and masks that their factories could not reopen until Feb. 14. An outcry followed, and the city’s officials relented on Monday, saying that 73 of the companies could resume operations.

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