COVID-19 sickens over 1,700 health workers in China, killing 6

Asian surgeon with patient
Asian surgeon with patient

XiXinXing / iStock

The impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers became a little clearer today, with a Chinese health official reporting 1,716 cases, 6 of them fatal, as Egypt reported its first infection and Singapore and Japan continue to report a steady stream of local cases.

In other developments, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said a 12-member international joint mission team will join its advance team this weekend to meet with Chinese experts, and researchers from China reported no severe illness in a small group of hospitalized babies who were infected with the novel coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the WHO's director-general, said the team will visit three provinces and that the goals are to gather information to guide the next response steps, better understand transmission and disease severity, and gauge the impact of outbreak response measures. No details were available about the members who are part of the joint mission.

Meanwhile the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean regional office (WHO EMRO) today on Twitter confirmed Egypt's first COVID-19 case, which was reported by the country's health ministry today. The WHO's Egypt office said on its Twitter account that the patient is a foreigner who is asymptomatic and is isolated in the hospital in stable condition.

Confirmed health worker infections triple

At a media briefing in China today, a top health official said 1,716 healthcare workers have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, 6 of them fatally, Reuters reported today.

Zeng Yixin, the National Health Commission (NHC) vice minister, said the number of infected healthcare workers is rising and that they are facing heavy and tiring workloads. He said 87% of the infected medical staff are from Hubei province, the outbreak's epicenter.

The number reported today is more than triple the 500 case number reported earlier this week by the South China Morning Post, based in information shared by Chinese hospital sources. They told the paper that at least 500 cases had been reported as of the middle of January.

Before that, China had first acknowledged only 14 or 15 cases in a Wuhan hospital. Then in a Feb 7 medical journal report on 138 cases at a Wuhan hospital, Chinese researchers noted that hospital-related transmission was responsible for 41% of the illnesses—40 health workers and 17 patients.

At today's WHO media briefing, Tedros said the information on health care worker infections is a critical piece of information "because health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together. But we need to know more about this figure, including the time period and circumstances in which the health workers became sick."

Mike Ryan, MD, who directs the WHO's health emergencies program, said for now it appears that the percentage of healthcare worker infections for COVID-19 is lower than for other coronaviruses, but added that it's not a guarantee. "We've always said the real point of entry for coronavirus is a busy emergency room." WHO officials said health workers in China are under tremendous pressure, and they're eager learn how medical teams were exposed, such as in emergency departments or while treating patients.

Meanwhile, China's National Health Commission today reported 5,090 new confirmed cases, boosting the overall 63,851. The new cases presumably reflect a number of clinically confirmed cases from Hubei province, based on the country's announcement yesterday about a change in reporting criteria for the outbreak's epicenter.

Also, China reported 121 more deaths and 2,174 more severe cases, raising those overall totals to 1,380 and 10,204, respectively. Health officials deleted some earlier Hubei cases, because some had been double-counted.

Local cases climb in Singapore, Japan

Singapore's health ministry today reported 9 more COVID-19 infections, all of them apparently local cases, raising the country's total to 67, the most outside of China, excluding the cluster on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Six of the new cases are part of a known church cluster, and one is a contact of an earlier confirmed case. Investigations are under way into how the other two patients were exposed to the virus.

In related developments, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned today that the COVID-19 outbreak could push the country into an economic recession and that the country was bracing for a "significant hit" in the quarters ahead, Reuters reported, based on comments Loong made in a Facebook video.

Elsewhere, Japan's health ministry today reported 6 more cases in five different cities, raising its total to 37. Investigations are under way into the source of exposure, though one patient had a close conversation with a tourist from Wuhan. Two have links to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, including a taxi driver who drove passengers from the boat after they disembarked, the Straits Times reported today. One is the patient who was at the same facility where an infected surgeon worked.

The WHO said today in its daily situation report that it received reports of 58 new cases outside of China over the last 24 hours, raising the total to 505 in 24 countries. Two of the illnesses were fatal.

Study: Hospitalized babies fared well

In research developments, a team from China today reported the first findings in hospitalized infants, a small group of 9, all of whom were contacts of an infected family member. Investigators published their findings in a research letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The babies—ages 1 month to 11 months—were hospitalized between December and Feb 6 in seven different cities, though seven of them were reported to be living in Wuhan or had links to Wuhan.

Four had fever and two had mild upper respiratory symptoms. None of them needed intensive care or experienced severe illness. Seven of the babies were girls, and researchers said further study is needed to assess if girls are more susceptible to the disease.

See also:

Feb 14 WHO EMRO tweet

Feb 14 WHO Egypt office tweet

Feb 14 China NHC daily report

Feb 14 Reuters story on infected health workers

Feb 14 Singapore health ministry statement

Feb 14 Reuters story on Singapore's economy

Feb 14 Japan health ministry statement

Feb 14 Japan health ministry statement on 37th case

Feb 14 Straits Times story

Feb 14 WHO daily situation report

Feb 14 JAMA letter

This week's top reads