February 14, 2020

Chinese health officials on Friday announced 1,716 health care workers have become infected with the new coronavirus and six of them have died since the outbreak began—but a senior Chinese official said more analysis is needed to determine how workers became infected.

Our analysis: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

About the outbreak

Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.

As of Friday, health officials reported more than 64,000 cases of the virus globally, with the vast majority of those cases occurring in China. Officials have reported more than 300 cases of the new coronavirus outside of mainland China. In the United States, CDC on Thursday reported 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Officials said as of Thursday there have been at least 1,383 reported deaths linked to the virus. All but three of the deaths have occurred in mainland China, and the vast majority occurred in the Hubei province.

More than 1K health workers contract coronavirus, Chinese authorities say

On Friday, Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, during a news conference said more than 1,700 health care workers have become infected with the virus—and that number is expected to rise. As of Tuesday, six of infected medical workers had died.

According to Zeng, the number of infected medical professionals accounted for 3.8% of China's overall confirmed infections and 0.4% of all of the country's death toll. Zeng said Hubei reported 1,502 cases of infected medical workers—or more than 87% of the total cases.

It's unclear whether the medical professionals became infected in their communities or at hospitals, according to Zeng, who noted further analysis is needed to determine the root of the infections.

The first official case count among medical workers comes about a week after media outlets reported a Chinese physician who raised alarms over the virus' spread had died. The physician, Li Wenliang, told the paper he'd contracted the virus from a female patient who he'd treated for glaucoma during the second week of January. Li noted that he had not been wearing any protective gear while treating patients when cases of the new virus first emerged.

And a study published in JAMA last week offered insights into just how quickly the virus can spread among patients and providers. The researchers found 41% of the 138 patients who were admitted to Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University from Jan. 1 to Jan. 28 contracted the virus in the hospital, including 17 patients admitted for other conditions and 40 health care workers. One patient in particular infected at least 10 health care workers and four other patients with the new coronavirus.

Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said the new figures are "quite concerning." Cowling said, "Health care workers face the challenge of caring for a substantial number of patients in Wuhan. It's worrying to discover that a number of them have been infected."

According to the Times, many physicians and nurses in Hubei are working nonstop with limited protective equipment, which is forcing them to make tough decisions. For example, some providers are resorting to only eating one meal a day to not have to use the restroom and discard safety gowns, which are in limited supply.

"At present, the duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy; their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great, and the risk of infection is high," Zeng said.

CDC director warns that more human-to-human transmission of virus is likely in the US

In the United States, health officials warned more human-to-human transmission of the virus is likely and the virus could become a long-term problem.

CDC Director Robert Redfield on Thursday told CNN, "This virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission." Redfield added that he thinks about patients who do not present symptoms passing on the virus to other people based on findings from China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is concerning because that makes it more difficult for CDC to track cases.

For now, Redfield noted CDC is focusing on containing the virus, and health officials believe there might still be an opportunity to stop widespread transmissions. However, Redfield warned that if officials begin to see multiple instances throughout the United States in which a single case leads to four "generations" of human-to-human transmission, CDC may shift efforts and conclude that containment failed.

In the meantime, CMS has been urging U.S. providers to adhere to Standard, Contact, and Airborne Precautions, such as using eye protection when treating patients. CMS also recommended clinicians use alcohol-based hand rub/hand sanitizer for hand hygiene, and to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds in instances in which hands are noticeably dirty (Crossley, Reuters, 2/14; Howard, CNN, 2/13; Branswell, STAT News, 2/12; New York Times, 2/14; AP/New York Times, 2/13; Westcott et al., CNN, 2/14; CDC release, 2/13).

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