scorecardMore than 500 healthcare workers in Wuhan have gotten the coronavirus. One study found that 29% of infections were in medical staff.
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More than 500 healthcare workers in Wuhan have gotten the coronavirus. One study found that 29% of infections were in medical staff.

Holly Secon   

More than 500 healthcare workers in Wuhan have gotten the coronavirus. One study found that 29% of infections were in medical staff.
LifeScience4 min read
Wuhan coronavirus doctors
  • As the new coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, continues to spread, hundreds of healthcare workers are getting sick.
  • The South China Morning Post reported that in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, up to 500 healthcare workers have confirmed diagnoses.
  • Another 600 cases among medical staff are suspected in Wuhan.
  • One study found that nearly a third of the 138 patients involved were healthcare workers.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak are getting sick.

At least 500 health workers in Wuhan hospitals have contracted the virus, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday, and approximately 600 more cases are suspected in Wuhan.

In one case, a patient admitted to a hospital in Wuhan infected at least 10 medical workers and four other patients, according to a study published Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Of the 138 total patients in that study, 29% were healthcare workers.

Three Chinese healthcare workers have died, including doctor Li Wenliang, who was censored by Chinese authorities after warning colleagues about the new virus.

These reports highlight a concerning threat both to the individuals working to curb this outbreak and to Wuhan's already overstressed healthcare system.

Healthcare workers at risk

Doctor Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital and a whistleblower who warned about the novel coronavirus outbreak but was summoned by police and admonished him for making false comments on the Internet.

The coronavirus has infected more than 45,000 people and killed at least 1,100. It has spread to 25 countries beyond than China. (For the latest numbers, see Business Insider's live updates here.)

Healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable for a handful of reasons. First, the coronavirus is highly contagious, and medical staff members are exposed to more viral particles than the general public. Second, they're facing shortages of supplies as the tide of patients rises. Third, a combination of stress and long hours could make their immune systems more vulnerable than normal.

A lack of data and information about the new coronavirus is a fourth challenge. Gastrointestinal symptoms, for example, were not initially recognized as potential early indicators. That's the reason one Wuhan patient infected 10 medical workers: The person came into the hospital with abdominal issues but was placed in a surgical ward, since the symptoms didn't match known coronavirus red flags. Four other patients in the ward then caught the virus, too.

coronavirus hospital hunan china.JPG

The threat to hospital staff isn't limited to China: Two of four new coronavirus cases in the UK are healthcare workers, officials announced Monday.

"We are now working urgently to identify all patients and other healthcare workers who may have come into close contact, and at this stage we believe this to be a relatively small number," Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, said in a statement.

At the Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California, meanwhile, five employees were sent home and told to self-isolate for about two weeks after they came into contact with a patient later confirmed to have coronavirus.

Infection among healthcare workers has been a problem during outbreaks of other coronaviruses as well, including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). Around 20% of people who got SARS were medical workers. One highly contagious patient - a "super-spreader" - infected 50 doctors and nurses.

Overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak

Wuhan coronavirus

In Wuhan, where nearly 20,000 cases have been documented, hospitals have reported running out of beds, testing kits, and protective gear.

Chinese authorities sent 10,000 additional medical workers and more protective gear to the hospitals in the city and rapidly built two new hospitals there as well. Hotels, sports centers, exhibition spaces, and other local venues are also serving as temporary treatment centers.

But a doctor at one major hospital in China - who was kept anonymous due to fears about losing his job - told the South China Morning Post that curbing the outbreak and treating patients is exponentially more difficult when healthcare workers are getting sick.

"Just a very rough estimate, 100 nurses and doctors can look after 100 ordinary beds and 16 ICU beds," he said. "If they are sick, not only do they occupy 100 beds, but the staff taking care of 100 beds are gone. That means a hospital loses the capacity of 200 beds. That is why the authorities have to keep sending medics over to Wuhan, not only because there are not enough beds, but because of a lack of health doctors and nurses to take care of the sick beds."

Hospitals and healthcare workers in other countries are preparing

coronavirus UK

In the US, which has confirmed 13 cases, many hospitals are preparing for potential coronavirus cases.

"A lot of our patients are from many different countries and travel," Kim Leslie, an emergency-department nursing director at Swedish Hospital in Chicago, previously told Business Insider. "The likelihood of us coming across it is high, so we're trying to have a plan for what to do."

Health authorities worldwide recommend standard preventative measures for healthcare providers: hand-washing, avoiding touching one's face, and wearing a surgical mask when around sick patients.

wuhan coronavirus

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that hospital staff put potentially infected patients in an airborne infection isolation room, wear eye protection, and immediately notify the CDC about any person under investigation.

Plus, US hospitals are already facing a bad flu season. At least 22 million people have gotten the flu since October 1, 2019, and 12,000 have died.

"It's really hard because so much of US screening is relying on travel history, but it shows the importance of following the standard procedure of basic infection control practices," Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist specializing in infection prevention, told Business Insider, adding, "if you could put a mask on everyone who had a cough and fever, that would be huge."

Have you been personally affected by the coronavirus epidemic? Are you a healthcare worker on the front lines of this disease? Have you or someone you know been tested or diagnosed? We want to hear your story. Please email