China coronavirus: crowds and confusion on the hospital front lines of outbreak

Echo Xie

At Xiehe Hospital in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of patients waited eagerly at the fever ward wanting to see a doctor.

Many of them had symptoms of pneumonia but few got what they wanted – admission and free treatment in a quarantined environment.

Xiehe is one of the dozen hospitals in the city designated to treat patients who may have contracted the coronavirus that has already killed 17 people and sickened hundreds of others.

While officials said they had stepped up quarantine of patients, including those suspected of being infected, the overcrowded fever ward at Xiehe reflected the struggle for hospitals to cope with the surge of people with pneumonia symptoms.

On one side of the fever ward, a relative of a 55-year-old man said a doctor told her the hospital was full and she should take the man home, even though he had a fever and other symptoms.

“I almost got down on my knees to beg the doctor to admit him so he could stay in the hospital but the doctor said there was no space,” she said.

She was one of about 100 patients packing the ward’s waiting area, forming long queues outside the three consultation rooms. While the doctors and nurses were equipped with full-gear protective clothing, many patients only had face masks as they were hooked up to intravenous drips. Some patients coughed and spat openly in the hallway.

People seek medical attention at a fever clinic at Tongji Hospital. Photo: SCMP

A young woman who gave her name as Luo said her 48-year-old father had had a fever for more than a week and was transferred to Xiehe on Tuesday but not admitted. An X-ray showed a shadow on his lungs but he had not been formally diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The woman said they lived near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the source of the outbreak.

“We are so anxious. We hope my father could stay in the hospital and be isolated so that other people won’t be infected,” she said.

“Now we have to go to the hospital every day by taking taxis and I am even worried that he may infect the taxi drivers.”

I was encouraged when the government said we will win this fight with the virus, but my personal experience made me depressed

Xu, 31

Another woman, who was in her 50s but declined to give her name, said that she also had a fever and doctors at a smaller hospital only told her to drink more water and stay home.

The situation was similar at Tongji Hospital where a crowd of people was waiting for treatment at the fever ward.

A woman who would only identify herself as Xu, 31, said her father had developed severe pneumonia and breathing problems.

Her father caught a fever on January 5 after a business trip to the southern region of Guangxi. A week later, he was admitted to an isolation ward at Tongji where he shared the same room with 11 other patients with no partitions separating beds.

On Sunday, the family was told that his condition was serious but an initial test for the virus came back negative. However, he was kept in the same room with no quarantine facilities.

“My dad can’t even drink water now. He has a fever every day and the antibiotics were useless on him,” she said. She asked for a second test for her father but received no reply. Two of her father’s friends who also went on the same business trip have since been confirmed infected and admitted to Jinyintan Hospital, which is treating most cases.

“I was encouraged when the government said we will win this fight with the virus but my personal experience made me depressed,” the daughter said.

“It’s good that the government said it is confident [to win] but can it really do its job? If not, it will just make more people panic.”

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