By Farah Master and Julie Zhu
HONG KONG (Reuters) – A growing number of China’s doctors and nurses are catching COVID-19 and some have been asked to keep working, as people showing mostly moderate symptoms throng hospitals and clinics, according to medical staff and dozens of posts on social media.
China’s health authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment on infections among medical staff.
Health experts say China’s sudden loosening of strict COVID rules is likely to trigger a surge in severe cases in coming months, and hospitals in big cities are already showing signs of strain.
Reuters was unable to immediately get verification from hospitals on waiting times and bed utilisation rates, but photographs circulated on social media showed patients in Beijing and neighbouring Baoding waiting for hours to get treated.
Health officials have been recommending that people with mild COVID symptoms quarantine at home and have also said most of the cases reported in the country are mild or asymptomatic.
“Our hospital is overwhelmed with patients. There are 700, 800 people with fever coming every day,” said a doctor surnamed Li at a tertiary hospital in Sichuan province.
“We are running out of medicine stocks for fever and cold, now waiting for delivery from our suppliers. A few nurses at the fever clinic were tested positive, there aren’t any special protective measures for hospital staff and I believe many of us will soon get infected,” Li added.
A nurse at another hospital in Chengdu said: “I was swamped with nearly 200 patients with COVID symptoms last night.”
Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, said insufficient medical resources to cope with an overload of COVID cases contributed to a surge in deaths in Hong Kong when infections peaked there earlier this year, and he warned that the same was going to happen in China.
“One of the reasons we had such a high mortality rate (in Hong Kong) is because we simply didn’t have enough hospital resources to cope in the surge. And unfortunately, that is what is going to happen in about one to two months time in the mainland,” Cowling said.
He said a surge in severe cases coupled with a surge of mild cases among the elderly who needed monitoring overwhelmed Hong Kong’s hospitals, and recommended separate isolation facilities for the elderly with mild cases to free up hospital beds.
State media Xinhua reported on Tuesday in capital Beijing 50 patients are currently in a serious or critical condition in hospital with COVID.
‘WHAT A MESS’
The sudden loosening of restrictions has sparked long queues outside fever clinics since last week in a worrying sign that a wave of infections is building, even though official tallies of new cases have trended lower recently as authorities eased back on testing.
Some hospitals in Beijing have up to 80% of their staff infected, but many of them are still required to work due to staff shortages, a doctor in a large public hospital in Beijing told Reuters, adding he has spoken to his peers at other big hospitals in the capital.
All operations and surgeries have been cancelled at his hospital unless the patient is “dying tomorrow”, he said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
A post on the Weibo social media platform recounted a recent experience at the emergency ward at Beijing Hospital.
“Those who have not been to the emergency department of Beijing Hospital don’t know what a mess it has become,” wrote a Weibo user called Moshang. The post went on to say that people in serious need of surgery were being made to wait.
Beijing Hospital did not immediately respond to a Reuters’ request for comment.
Wan Ling, a head nurse at a hospital in Huashan in China’s Anhui province, wrote on Weibo that many of her infected colleagues were relatively serious and had high fever.
Several doctors from Wuhan province’s top public hospital Tongji have also tested positive for COVID-19, but since Sunday have not been allowed to take leave, a pharmaceutical sales representative with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, declining to be named, as the information is not public.
“They have to stay at work while they are sick,” said the person who regularly visits the hospital and spoke to its doctors recently.