Instead of helping on the frontlines, she has been under self-quarantine at home for weeks, after a chest scan on January 26 revealed that she had a suspected case of the novel Coronavirus.
Zhu was told to wait for a nucleic acid test that would provide the final verdict, but it never came.
“Right now, it’s really a problem. Our hospital already has more than 100 people who are quarantined at home,” she told CNN over the phone. An additional 30 medical workers have been confirmed to have the virus, she said.
“If the tests are fine, we can go back to work. I actually don’t have any symptoms, there’s just a slight problem with my CT scan, it seems there’s a bit of infection,” she said.
The nurse, who had been under self-quarantine at home since being infected last month, was finally admitted into the hospital she works at for treatment on Tuesday.
In his first public appearance since the outbreak, Chinese President Xi Jinping this week visited a hospital in Beijing and urged medical staff to spare no efforts to reduce infection rates in hospitals, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
Chinese health authorities have not disclosed the number of infections among health care workers, who are bearing the brunt of the risk in fighting the outbreak. The National Health Commission did not respond to CNN’s inquiry on the scale of infection among medical staff.
Accounts shared by medical workers with CNN, on social media, in Chinese media reports and in medical journals, however, suggest the extent of infection is likely to be in the high hundreds.
In Wuhan, there are 398 hospitals and nearly 6,000 community clinics.
However, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission has designated nine hospitals to treat coronavirus cases, as well as an additional 61 hospitals whose outpatient clinics will receive patients with fever — believed to be a common symptom of the pneumonia-like illness.
In some of these designated hospitals, medical staff have made up a significant percentage of infected patients.
Peng Zhiyong, director of acute medicine at the Zhongnan Hospital who co-authored the paper, told Chinese investigative news magazine Caixin that “the ratio is already very small compared with other hospitals.”
At the Wuhan No.7 Hospital, another of the 61 facilities, two thirds of the ICU staff were infected due to shortage of medical resources, Peng said, citing his deputy director who was sent to assist that hospital, according to the report.
On Weibo, a post by the state-run People’s Daily showed medical personnel in a Wuhan hospital creating protective gear out of plastic trash bags.
Apart from the lack of masks, gloves and protective suits, medical workers have also been stretched to their limits by the crushing workload. Cross-infections among hospital staff are thought to have taken place in tea rooms and meeting areas, after long grueling shifts, according to David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, citing doctors who were sent to assist hospitals in Wuhan from Beijing.
Moreover, the government’s initial delay in releasing information about the outbreak meant medical staff were unaware of the potential dangers during its early stages. Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted on CCTV late last month that his government did not disclose information on the coronavirus “in a timely fashion.”
Chinese authorities repeatedly stressed in the early days of the outbreak that no health care workers were infected — an important sign for possible person-to-person transmission used to suggest that the virus was not that contagious.
China’s Supreme Court said in a commentary on January 28 that had people listened to Lis’s warnings they could have “adopted measures such as wearing masks, strict disinfection and avoiding going to the wildlife market.”
Instead unaware of the health risks, many doctors and nurses were only wearing disposable masks when treating potential coronavirus patients at the beginning of the outbreak. Ivan Hung, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Hong Kong University, said those masks alone are “definitely inadequate” in fending off the virus.
“Basically, medical staff should be wearing N95 masks, goggles or face shields, and protective suits not only in isolation wards, but also at emergency departments and medical wards — basically anywhere that one might get in touch with coronavirus patients,” he said.
It was not until January 20, when Zhong Nanshan, a government-appointed respiratory expert, declared on state broadcaster CCTV that the new coronavirus could spread from person-to-person, that the infection of medical workers was revealed.
As evidence for human transmission, Zhong, an 83-year-old doctor known for fighting the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak 17 years ago, disclosed that 14 medical workers in a hospital had been infected by one patient.
Since then, however, the commission has not announced any updates on the number of confirmed or suspected cases among the city’s hospital staff, even as Chinese media have published multiple reports offering a glimpse into the true scale of infections in hospitals.
Spread of the problem
The infection of medical workers is not only happening at the designated Wuhan hospitals, but is also being seen at other facilities and cities across China.
Meanwhile, the virus has spread to every region in mainland China, including the far western frontier of Xinjiang and the remote region of Tibet. Authorities in Beijing and the provinces of Guangxi, Jiangxi and Hainan have all reported individual cases of infection among hospital staff, amounting to two dozens people.
By Tuesday, a fund set up by ByteDance, the Beijing-based startup behind popular short video platform TikTok, to help health care workers stricken by the coronavirus had already sponsored 190 infected medics, including five who has died, the company said in a statement to CNN.
At the national level, however, the National Health Commission has not announced any number of infected health care workers in its daily updates of confirmed and suspected cases.
For coming up with a tally of infected health care workers on novel coronavirus, Hung, the professor at Hong Kong University, said it might be too difficult for authorities right now.
“I believe they might start (releasing the numbers) in two or three months. Now it is too much of a mess and chaos,” he said.
Hung said he was confident that frontline medical workers are now equipped with better protective gear than those produced 17 years ago during the SARS epidemic. He also believed that they are being churned out in factories to meet the demand.
“The main problem is what happened early on in the outbreak, which had repercussions that have lasted till today,” he said, referring to the cross-infections in ill-prepared hospitals.
“When you had no idea what you’re facing, there’s bound to be negligence,” he said.