Tired Wuhan doctors risk infection without proper protective gear

A medical worker with a coronavirus patient in a Wuhan hospital on Monday. The city faced a daily shortage of 41,000 protective suits last week.
A medical worker with a coronavirus patient in a Wuhan hospital on Monday. The city faced a daily shortage of 41,000 protective suits last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Doctors on the front line of China's coronavirus outbreak are facing a daunting task: Treat an increasing number of infected patients and risk getting infected themselves due to a drastic shortage of masks and other protec-tive equipment.

Tired medical workers at understaffed facilities have had to deal with thousands of new cases a week in Wuhan - the city at the epicentre of the outbreak that first emerged late last year.

Many doctors have had to see patients without proper masks or protective body suits, resorting to re-using the same equipment when they should be changed regularly.

One doctor at a community clinic in Wuhan said he and at least 16 colleagues were showing symptoms similar to Covid-19, including lung infection and coughing.

"As doctors, we do not want to work while being a source of infection," he said, requesting anony-mity for fear of reprisals.

But "right now, there is no one to replace you", the doctor explained, adding that all medical staff without fever are expected to work.

The risks that medical staff face were highlighted last Friday after Wuhan's whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang succumbed to the virus more than a month after he first raised the alarm about a new virus that resembles the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus in the city.

Wuhan Deputy Mayor Hu Yabo said last Friday that the city faced a daily shortage of 56,000 N95 masks and 41,000 protective suits.

Medical staff in protective suits will "wear diapers, reduce how much water they drink, and reduce how many times they use the bathroom", said Ms Jiao Yahui, an official with China's National Health Commission.

A doctor at a major Wuhan hospital, who requested anonymity, said: "Even if we receive more masks, the number of patients increases even faster."

Doctors have been forced to wear makeshift hazmat suits, which are inadequate protection against the virus, said Ms Xu Yuan, a 34-year-old in the United States who donated US$5,000 (S$7,000) in protective equipment to former classmates working at Wuhan hospitals.

"As soon as he put it on, (the suit) cracked because it was too small for him," she said, describing a friend in Wuhan who was asked to wear the same hazmat suit for five days.

Handling the daily deluge of new cases takes another kind of toll, said the doctor at the large hospital in Wuhan.

"They are exhausted," she said.

One of her colleagues, for instance, works at a clinic that receives 400 patients within eight hours.

Many are dealing with patients "who die very quickly, whom they have not managed to save", she said. "They have a lot of pressure."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2020, with the headline 'Tired Wuhan doctors risk infection without proper protective gear'. Print Edition | Subscribe