- Fifteen cases of the coronavirus have been officially reported among medical staff in the city, but doctors say the true number is far higher
- One says that 'even now we don't have enough protective gear' but hospital workers have 'no option' but to carry on
The Chinese Centre for Disease Control has identified 15 hospital staff as being infected in the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan city, but two sources with direct knowledge of the situation said doctors and nurses were being stricken at a much faster pace.
The outbreak was first reported on December 31, less than four weeks ago, and identified as a previously unidentified pathogen on January 7.
During most of that period, medical staff were treating patients in Wuhan hospitals without confirmation of human-to-human transmission.
One patient " a suspected super-spreader, or highly virulent carrier of the disease " is thought to have infected 14 staff in one hospital alone, Yuen Kwok-yung, a doctor and infectious diseases specialist at Hong Kong University, said at a press conference.
Chinese man from Wuhan confirmed as Singapore's first case
He visited Wuhan with other doctors at the invitation of the central government on Tuesday.
A Wuhan doctor said at least one dormitory building at a hospital in the city was being used to house quarantined medical workers.
"Definitely more than 15 medical workers are infected," the doctor said, declining to give his name because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the issue.
"Many were not initially informed about the potential for people-to-person transmission and even now we don't have enough protective gear, test kits and other supplies.
"We are worried about infected colleagues, but for the rest of us there is no other option but to carry on."
The Hubei Health Commission confirmed on Tuesday that five medical workers from the nearby city of Huanggang were also infected.
Beijing took drastic action on Thursday to try to stop the spread of the virus by ordering a halt in public transport in and out of Wuhan, effectively an attempt to lock down the city of 11 million people.
Official figures say the coronavirus has killed at least 25 people and infected hundreds more in Wuhan, as well as others across China and overseas after travellers carried it out of the city. An 80-year-old man in Hebei province was confirmed as a fatality, the 18th, on Thursday.
First coronavirus death reported outside Hubei
The pathogen is a seemingly less virulent relative of the severe acute respiratory syndrome or Sars virus that originated in China in 2002 and killed more than 700 people worldwide the following year.
As the infection rate surged in Wuhan over the past two weeks, doctors said the 14 hospitals in the city designated to handle the virus had been stretched to the limit as patients flooded in and medical staff fell ill. The situation highlighted the lack of readiness at the hospitals, they said.
Another doctor, who helped treat Sars patients in Wuhan 17 years ago, said many of his former colleagues and classmates in medical school had fallen ill.
"You can find infected medical practitioners in almost all major hospitals in Wuhan. The number is certainly far higher than 15," said the doctor, who also declined to be named. The doctor is still in Wuhan but no longer practises medicine.
Calls to the Wuhan health commission and major hospitals in Wuhan for comment were not picked up.
The Wuhan doctors said that the city's hospital system was overwhelmed and that there was a shortage of medical practitioners and protective kits for them.
Wuhan virus killing mostly the elderly, those with previous health problems
People's Daily reported on Thursday night that Sichuan province is sending 130 medical staff to Wuhan to help cope with the outbreak.
China's leading Sars expert, Zhong Nanshan, told a press conference earlier this week that there were at least 15 cases of sickened medical staff in Wuhan. He said 14 of them were thought to have been infected by a single patient in the neurology department.
One of the doctors in Wuhan said putting infected people in hospital with other patients was a major cause of the cross-infections that also reached medical staff.
"The patients infected with the coronavirus were scattered across so many hospitals and they were not isolated at the time. Many medical practitioners became sick because of that," one of the doctors said. He added that 17 years after Sars, there had been no major improvement in the front-line response to such outbreaks.
Separately, a 29-year-old Wuhan resident, who only gave his surname as Wang, said doctors had been reluctant to confirm his grandmother's infection for a week, even though a CAT scan showed she had the pneumonia-like symptoms of the virus.
She was placed in a regular ward in Hubei Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, together with patients suffering different ailments, he said.
She was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Thursday morning. "Isolation did not begin for her until (then)," Wang said.
Wuhan quarantine: shutting down a city five times the size of London
Before then, "visitors had been allowed in and out of her wards with other patients as they pleased," Wang said.
"They even ran a second CAT on her and considered discharging her because there weren't enough beds," he added.
Wang said he did not understand why doctors had not used a fast test kit for the virus that was made available a few days earlier.
"For days, we felt that the doctors were dragging their feet on a diagnosis. All they would say was she had suspected symptoms of the coronavirus after running blood work, but refused to give a confirmed diagnosis," he said. "Shouldn't a quick test kit give quick results?"
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