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As COVID-19 restrictions ease, Wuhan hospitals overwhelmed by patients with other serious illnesses

National Post logo National Post 2020-04-16 The Telegraph
a group of people standing in a room: Passengers from Wuhan disembark in Beijing on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. © AP Photo/Sam McNeil Passengers from Wuhan disembark in Beijing on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Mr Wang has waited all year to take his father, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, to see a doctor, which was impossible during lockdown in Wuhan – ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Within a week of the city easing restrictions, Mr Wang called for an ambulance to take his father to hospital, but now he fears it is too late – his health has deteriorated significantly due to complications from at-home dialysis.

“He is going to die because he had to wait so long,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

“It’s due to the coronavirus epidemic – if we could have seen a doctor earlier, this wouldn’t be a problem.”

Patients such as Mr Wang’s father are flooding into hospitals in Wuhan, at the same time as China says coronavirus infections are subsiding. Medical staff are rushing to care for patients who have not been infected by Covid-19 but have become severely ill as a consequence of delayed treatment. “We are under more pressure than during the peak of Covid-19, as there has been a huge influx of patients in a critical condition,” said a coronavirus frontline nurse, now mostly handling elderly patients with cardiovascular illnesses.

“They have not received any treatment in over two months, and thus, are in a dire condition,” she said, declining to give a name over fears she could lose her job.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party hasn’t publicly acknowledged the issue of secondary deaths due to a lack of care at overstretched hospitals and restricted mobility in the midst of a public health crisis.

Experts say countries with greater intensive care capacity are better equipped for handling an emergency outbreak alongside ongoing medical issues.

The US has about 35 critical care beds per 100,000 people – about ten times more than China, according to data cited by the Society of Critical Care Medicine. The UK has more than double that of China.

“China still needs to catch up with Western society in terms of preparedness for the healthcare system,” said Xi Chen, a public health professor at Yale University.

a group of people wearing costumes:  Government workers stand outside a blue tent used to coordinate transportation of travelers from Wuhan to designated quarantine sites in Beijing, China, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. © AP Photo/Sam McNeil Government workers stand outside a blue tent used to coordinate transportation of travelers from Wuhan to designated quarantine sites in Beijing, China, Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Boosting access to primary care would also help patients with mild illnesses from developing more severe symptoms, reducing the need for hospitalisation later on, he said.

Over the last few months, phone calls to hospitals and doctors simply weren’t getting through.

“They couldn’t help us; the doctors were so overwhelmed, and so many of them were getting sick, too, with the coronavirus,” said Mr Wang, who refused to give his full name. “How could they deal with us?”

Outpatient clinics closed during the peak of the outbreak, as all medical staff were redeployed to handle the high volume of coronavirus victims.

“Everyone was assigned to work on the frontline – we didn’t have a choice,” a nurse said, recalling long shifts behind stifling hazmat suits. The only other possibility was to resign, and some did.

Overcrowding in the hospital was so severe that it was impossible to isolate confirmed patients from suspected cases, she said.

Mr Wang, who lives on the outskirts of Wuhan, even tried lobbying neighbourhood authorities for permission to travel despite lockdowns.

But mandatory home quarantine and sealed roads meant he was never granted permission to take his father for medical treatment – necessary a few times a year to clear any infections from his body.

Experts say this heavy volume of critical patients could last a while, and those that refrain from visiting hospitals over worries of being infected with the coronavirus could see their condition worsen, leading to yet another wave of those seeking urgent care.

Such fears are not unfounded. In China, the coronavirus pandemic is still far from over.

Over the past week, China has posted about 100 cases daily, the biggest one-day increases since early March, primarily due to Chinese citizens travelling home from overseas and bringing the infection with them.

A number of quarantine and mobility restrictions remain in place – all those arriving in Beijing, for instance, must have negative virus test results valid within the last seven days.

“The spillover effect could be huge,” said Mr Chen.

“Even after the lifting of lockdowns, the associated uncertainty may still last for a while before people feel comfortable enough to visit hospitals.”

Mr Wang sat slumped outside a hospital where an ambulance had taken his father, feeling dejected.

“If it weren’t for the coronavirus epidemic, my father definitely wouldn’t be dying,” he said. “There are so many other sick people like this, minor illnesses dragged into serious ones, and then serious ones developing into deaths.” 

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