Two nurses working at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic — the central Chinese city of Wuhan — have made a global appeal for assistance on the website of the medical journal, The Lancet.
Zeng Yingchun and Zhen Yan, who hail from the southern province of Guangdong, were among a wave of medical personnel dispatched to the front line of the epidemic at the beginning of the year.
They arrived in the city on Jan. 24 to bolster the ranks of existing medical staff, who were stretched beyond endurance faced with overwhelming numbers of patients and rapidly dwindling supplies.
“The conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined,” the nurses write, citing a severe shortage of protective equipment like N95 respirators, face shields, goggles, gowns, and gloves.
They said the nurses are suffering physical symptoms such as rashes and blisters from the layers of protective clothing they are expected to wear, and often go for hours without eating or drinking because it is so tiring and time-consuming to take the garments off, sterilize equipment and then don it all over again.
“Wearing four layers of gloves is abnormally clumsy and does not work—we can’t even open the packaging bags for medical devices, so giving patients injections is a huge challenge,” the letter says.
“In order to save energy and the time it takes to put on and take off protective clothing, we avoid eating and drinking for 2 hours before entering the isolation ward,” it says. “Some nurses have fainted due to hypoglycemia and hypoxia.”
“In addition to the physical exhaustion, we are also suffering psychologically,” they wrote. “While we are professional nurses, we are also human. Like everyone else, we feel helplessness, anxiety, and fear.”
‘We need much more help’
The letter said that frontline medical staff is at the highest risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus, citing nine deaths and 1,716 infections among colleagues.
“Due to an extreme shortage of health-care professionals in Wuhan, 14,000 nurses from across China have voluntarily come to Wuhan to support local medical health-care professionals,” Zeng and Zhen write.
“But we need much more help. We are asking nurses and medical staff from countries around the world to come to China now, to help us in this battle.”
The nursing staff in Wuhan are largely focused on providing oxygen, ECG monitoring, tube care, and airway management, ventilator debugging, hemodialysis, central venous intubation and disposal, and disinfection tasks, the letter said.
The letter came as the number of total deaths from COVID-19 reached 2,770 on Wednesday, with 2,615 in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.
Total confirmed cases reached 81,245 globally, with 78,064 in mainland China and 1,261 in South Korea, according to an online tracking website compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The new figures came as police minister Zhao Kezhi said the government’s top priority is “maintaining political stability” amid the epidemic.
He called on departments at all levels of government to “resolutely crack down on hostile forces at home and overseas.”
Police must “resolutely obey the orders of President Xi Jinping” at all times to create a “secure and stable political and social environment for epidemic control and prevention,” Zhao told a news conference.
Tension over the cost of care
Zhang Chunyu, an employee of a state-own enterprise in Wuhan, said Zhao’s warning comes amid growing tension between medical staff and patients over access to — and funding for — medical care.
“If you have coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan, you are referred to as suspected patients prior to diagnosis, and suspected patients have to meet all of their medical bills out of their own pockets,” Zhang said. “This can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“Treatment is only free in the case of confirmed diagnosis: if you are a suspected patient, it’s about how much treatment you can afford,” he said.
Reports emerged this week that 71-year-old Tan Minhua — an employee of the Dongfeng Automobile Factory in Hubei, had died at home, likely of coronavirus, while his six-year-old grandson was left alone with his body in the same apartment, trying to stave off hunger by eating cookies for an estimated three days.
Tan’s son is currently in the southwestern province of Guangxi and has been unable to return to Hubei because of travel restrictions there.
A Dongfeng employee surnamed Liu said the area around the factory is currently under military control, meaning that nobody is allowed to leave their home.
“Nobody’s allowed to go out, now that we’re under military control,” Liu said. “My parents haven’t been outside in more than a month, at any rate.”
An official who answered the phone at the nearby Zhui New District Health Center, where Tan was a registered patient, declined to comment.
“We don’t know about this,” the official said. Calls to the local ruling Chinese Communist Party propaganda office rang unanswered on Wednesday.
A local resident surnamed Ye said the epidemic is hitting the most vulnerable in Chinese society hardest.
“The people at the bottom of the heap are in a terrible way, and the government doesn’t care at all,” he said.
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