The coronavirus has infected over 1,700 health workers in China, killing six of them, global officials reported Friday in the first glimpse at how the epidemic is impacting frontline disease fighters.
Whether health workers are able to render aid without, themselves, getting sick is a key factor in the response to an outbreak.
Dr. Li Wenliang, who blew the whistle on the outbreak in early January, only to be detained by authorities, died of the illness Feb. 7 after helping patients at the heart of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province.
The World Health Organization said the data offer an important look at the overall picture.
“This is a critical piece of information because health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “But we need to know more about this figure, including the time period and circumstances in which the health workers became sick.”
Officials said even with the best level of protective gear, workers can still get infected because they don’t use it correctly, often due to stress or fatigue.
WHO is urging equipment suppliers to prioritize health workers as they manufacture and ship gear that may protect against infection.
“They are our front line,” Dr. Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s emergencies program. “They are our heroes.”
More broadly, WHO officials said there were over 47,500 lab-confirmed cases in China as of Friday.
Another 16,000-plus cases have been “clinically confirmed” through new criteria in Hubei Province that use chest-imaging instead of lab tests, meaning there are over 63,000 reported cases in total.
WHO said it is trying to learn more about the criteria to ensure that other respiratory illnesses, including influenza, “are not getting mixed into the COVID-19 data,” Mr. Tedros said, using the formal name for the new coronavirus.
There have been 1,381 deaths in China, with about 100 new ones reported Friday.
Outside of China, there have been 505 cases in 24 countries. Japan and the Philippines each have reported one death.
WHO said its full team of 12 disease experts will touch down in China over the weekend to review data with authorities, visit hard-hit areas and conduct workshops on how to fight the coronavirus.
“From our perspective, we have a government that’s cooperating with us,” Dr. Ryan said, responding to international criticism of the communist Chinese government’s response to the outbreak.
Officials said infections in Chinese health workers seemed to peak in the third and fourth weeks of January before a “rapid falloff,” as the response gets more sophisticated and vigilant.
Dr. Ryan wants to know how many were infected unknowingly. Some, for instance, might not have been wearing protective equipment when they should have been.
“There’s a whole lot of factors we need to look at, and we will be doing that with Chinese authorities,” he said.