At the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, providers in Wuhan, China, are facing a shortage of needed tests and medical supplies, forcing them to turn patients away and send them home to self-quarantine—but officials hope two new hospitals will offer some relief.
About the new coronavirus
Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 among people in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus, called 2019-nCoV, are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.
As of Tuesday, heath officials in China had reported at over 20,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Officials in China said there were 425 reported deaths linked to the virus as of Tuesday. The disease is in at least 20 countries, but vast majority of confirmed cases have been in China, with the Hubei region, which includes Wuhan, seeing the highest case count.
Coronavirus outbreak strains providers
According to the New York Times, the growing number of cases and quarantine measures China officials have put in place to ease the virus' spread are posing barriers to patients accessing care. The city's quarantine measures include a ban on public transportation and private cars, forcing many sick residents to walk, in some cases several hours, to reach a hospital.
Under official guidelines, patients with suspected cases of the virus are encouraged to receive initial assessments from their local hospitals. Patients then must deliver their results to local neighborhood committees that were set up to coordinate with local hospitals. Patients who have mild symptoms are usually sent home to self-quarantine, but those with more severe symptoms are taken by one of the city's limited ambulances to one of the nearly two dozen hospitals treating patients with the virus, according to the New York Times.
But, as the Times reports, the system is struggling from the influx of patients and arriving at a hospital does not necessarily mean patients will get care.
Long Jian, a 32 year-old man who'd accompanied his elderly father to the hospital, said his father visited six different hospitals and waited seven days just to access the test needed to confirm he has the coronavirus.
That's in part because the demand for care has caused medical supply shortages, including a lack of testing kits to diagnose cases of the virus. The long lines of patients seeking testing and treatment suggests the virus could be spreading faster than official counts because patients are waiting in close quarters can easily pass on the infection to others.
But without the tests, patients are turned away from hospitals. Amy Hu said her elderly mother visited a local doctor after becoming sick. While the doctor suspected the coronavirus, he told her the test to diagnose the condition was unavailable. Without the test, Amy's mother was not able to be treated at one of the city's hospitals and was sent home to wait and self-quarantine.
"Those who can get diagnosed and treated are the lucky ones," Long said. "In our neighborhood, many who weren't able to get diagnosed ended up dying at home."
New hospitals may offer relief
But last month, China officials announced an ambitious project to quickly build two new hospitals in Wuhan to improve access to care.
One of hospitals, called Huoshenshan, or "Fire God Mountain," opened on Monday. The hospital, which took just 10 days to build, includes 1,000 beds, ICUs, and sections for diagnosis and infection control. The other new hospital, which will have 1,300 beds, is expected to open later this week, according to NBC News.
The Chinese government said about 1,400 military medical workers will staff Huoshenshan hospital and potentially address the shortage of health care professionals available to fight the outbreak. According to China's state news agency, many of the military workers have experience treating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone and Liberia (McNeil, New York Times, 1/29; Qin, New York Times, 2/2; Talmazan, NBC News, 2/3; Li/Wang, Wall Street Journal, 2/3).