Several young doctors in China have died of the coronavirus. Medical workers are far more vulnerable to infection than the general population.
LI WENLIANG/GAN EN FUND via REUTERS
- More than 3,300 of the 78,800 coronavirus cases in mainland China are among healthcare workers.
- At least eight medical workers have died, including one doctor who was 29 and another who was 34.
- Older people have the highest risk of dying from the virus. But doctors are at risk because they're overworked, exposed to many infected people, and may lack adequate protection.
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Peng Yinhua, a 29-year-old Chinese doctor, planned to marry his fiancée on February 1. But as the coronavirus outbreak grew, Peng postponed his wedding to help treat patients in Wuhan. He died of the disease on February 21.Peng was one of at least eight healthcare workers who have died of the virus. Another young doctor, Li Wenliang, died February 7, leaving behind a son and pregnant wife. Li, who was 34, had been censored after sounding the alarm about the coronavirus to fellow medical-school alumni.
The deaths of doctors in their 20s and 30s naturally sparks concern about the coronavirus' risk to younger people, but according to China's National Health Commission, about 80% of people who have died from COVID-19 were over the age of 60.Rather, the doctors' deaths highlight an unfortunate reality of any new and evolving outbreak: Healthcare workers on the front lines face a higher risk of contracting the disease.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Why healthcare workers are especially at riskHealthcare workers are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 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 because they interact with so many sick people.Research published earlier this month found that of 138 patients studied at one Wuhan hospital, 29% were healthcare workers. One coronavirus patient was initially sent to the wrong because they displayed atypical symptoms, so went on to infect at least 10 medical workers.
Second, healthcare workers in China have dealt with a shortage of supplies like masks, suits, and protective gear. That makes staff even more susceptible to the virus while treating patients.
Third, China's medical staff is overworked. At the end of January, the Washington Post reported that hospital staff in Wuhan were wearing adult diapers because they didn't have time to use the bathroom in between treating coronavirus patients.China has less than two physicians for every 10,000 residents, according to the WHO.
When medical staff get sick, these problems compound.
"Just a very rough estimate, 100 nurses and doctors can look after 100 ordinary beds and 16 ICU beds," a Chinese hospital doctor - who was kept anonymous due to fears about losing his job - told the South China Morning Post earlier this month. "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."
Healthcare workers were disproportionately affected in other outbreaks, too
The Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people in west Africa between 2013 and 2016. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), healthcare workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely to be infected with Ebola than people in the general adult population. The risk of acquiring Ebola was 100 times higher for healthcare workers in Sierra Leone than the general population, a 2014 study revealed.Around 20% of people who got SARS during that outbreak in 2002 and 2003 were medical workers. One highly contagious patient - a "super-spreader" - infected 50 healthcare workers.
Older people face the highest risk
The coronavirus has killed almost 2,900 people and infected more than 83,000 since December. The vast majority of cases and deaths, about 95%, have been in China, though ases have been reported in at least 56 other countries. (Read Business Insider's latest updates here.)So far, research suggests older people with pre-existing health conditions are most likely to die.
Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
About 80% of people who died in China were older than 60, and 75% had other medical issues, according to a recent report from China's National Health Commission. A study of 17 patients who died from coronavirus complications reported that their median age was around 75. Many had health problems like high blood pressure and Parkinson's disease.
Other studies have estimated the average ages of infected patients to be between 47 and 55. The largest coronavirus study to date, which examined 72,000 cases in China, revealed that more than 75% of infected patients were between 30 and 69.
AP Photo/Dake Kang
Tragedy on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic
Chinese authorities announced on February 23 that medical workers across the country will get salary bumps.
"For those working at the frontline in Hubei province, the temporary subsidies and one-time paycheck for extra work should be doubled and tripled, respectively," a statement from China's State Council said.Council members also confirmed that healthcare workers' living expenses would be taken care of and doctors would get days off.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Those changes, however, came after the eight healthcare workers died.Li died a month after he sent out the warning message describing patients in Wuhan with a worrisome pneumonia-like illness. Wuhan police had forced him sign a letter saying he was "making false comments."
Peng's wedding invitations, found in his office drawer, were never sent.
Aria Bendix and Holly Secon contributed reporting to this story.Read more about the novel coronavirus:
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