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Healthcare workers on the front line of the coronavirus outbreak are getting sick by the hundreds.
The Chinese National Health Commission said Friday that 1,716 healthcare workers across the country were infected with the virus. Of these, 87.5% are in the Hubei Province where the outbreak began.
In addition, the Chinese authorities confirmed for the first time that six health care workers have died. This includes doctor Li Wenliang, who was censored by the Chinese authorities after warning colleagues about the new virus.
The South China Morning Post on Tuesday reported that at least 500 healthcare workers in Wuhan hospitals had contracted the virus and that around 600 other cases were suspected. However, official figures show that the risk for medical personnel is even greater.
Research published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that of 138 patients examined, 29% were healthcare workers. In one case, a patient admitted to a Wuhan hospital infected at least 10 medical workers and four other patients.
Together, these reports highlight a worrying threat to both those working to contain the outbreak and Wuhan’s already overwhelmed health system.
Healthcare workers at risk
Photo by Anthony Kwan / Getty Images
The corona virus infected more than 64,000 people and killed almost 1,400 people. It has spread to 25 countries outside of China. (For the latest numbers, see Business Insider’s live updates here.)
Healthcare workers are particularly at risk for a handful of reasons. First, the coronavirus is highly contagious and medical personnel are exposed to more virus particles than the general public. Second, they face supply shortages when the tide of patients increases. Third, a combination of stress and long hours could make the immune system more vulnerable than normal.
A lack of data and information about the new corona virus is a fourth challenge. For example, gastrointestinal symptoms were initially not recognized as potential early indicators. This is why a Wuhan patient infected 10 medical workers: the person came to the hospital with abdominal problems, but was taken to a surgical department because the symptoms did not match the known red flags of the coronavirus. Four other patients on the ward were also infected with the virus.
Reuters / Thomas Peter
The threat to hospital staff isn’t limited to China: two out of four new coronavirus cases in the UK are healthcare workers, officials said on Monday.
“We are now working hard to identify all patients and other healthcare workers who may have come into close contact and we believe that this is currently a relatively small number,” said Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director of Public Health England, in a statement.
At Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California, five employees were sent home and asked to isolate themselves for about two weeks after they came into contact with a patient who was later confirmed to have coronavirus.
Health care worker infections have also been a problem with outbreaks of other coronaviruses, including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome). Around 20% of the people who received SARS were medical professionals. A highly contagious patient – a “super spreader” – infected 50 doctors and nurses.
“We’ve seen this at MERS before, we’ve seen it at SARS,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergency Program, at a press conference on Friday. “If you look at the percentage of total cases, even though this is a tragic situation for health workers … it is a lower percentage than with other coronavirus outbreaks.”
Overwhelmed by the outbreak of the corona virus
REUTERS / Martin Pollard
In Wuhan, where nearly 20,000 cases have been documented, hospitals have reported running out of beds, test kits, and protective equipment.
The Chinese authorities sent 10,000 additional medical workers and more protective equipment to the city’s hospitals and quickly built two new hospitals there. Hotels, sports centers, showrooms and other local venues also serve as temporary treatment centers.
A doctor in a large hospital in China, who was kept anonymous for fear of losing his job, told the South China Morning Post that containing the outbreak and treating patients was exponentially more difficult when healthcare workers get sick.
“Just a very rough estimate: 100 nurses and doctors can take care of 100 normal beds and 16 beds in the intensive care unit,” he said. “When they are sick, not only do they occupy 100 beds, but the staff that takes care of 100 beds is gone. This means that a hospital loses the capacity of 200 beds, so the authorities must continue to send doctors to Wuhan. ” not only because there are not enough beds, but also because there is a shortage of doctors and nurses to take care of the sick beds. “
Hospitals and healthcare workers in other countries are preparing
Leon Neal / Getty Images
In the United States, which has confirmed 15 cases, many hospitals are preparing for potential coronavirus cases.
“Many of our patients come from many different countries and travel,” Kim Leslie, emergency room director at the Swedish hospital in Chicago, told Business Insider earlier. “We are very likely to come across it, so we are trying to have a plan of what to do.”
Health authorities around the world recommend standard precautionary measures for healthcare providers: washing hands, avoiding face contact and wearing a face mask for sick patients.
The central hospital from Wuhan via Weibo / Reuters
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend that hospital staff move potentially infected patients to an isolation room for airborne infections, wear eye protection, and immediately notify the CDC of anyone examined.
In addition, US hospitals are already facing a bad flu season. At least 22 million people have had the flu since October 1, 2019, and 12,000 have died.
“It is really difficult because much of the US screening is based on travel history, but it shows how important it is to follow the standard procedure of basic infection control methods,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist specializing in infection prevention, told Business Insider. If you could put a mask on anyone who had a cough and fever, it would be huge. “
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