Reports of new infections in Beijing have sparked fears over the capital's exposure to the deadly novel coronavirus, especially as millions of people head back to work after an extended holiday.
New confirmed cases have led to large-scale quarantines in at least two hospitals in downtown Beijing, with many potential contacts yet to be traced, according to a city government news briefing on Thursday.
Beijing reported a total of 395 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of the end of Wednesday. Nationwide, the disease has sickened nearly 75,000 people and killed over 2,100. More than 80% of the patients are from the central the city of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei Province.
The daily count of new cases has declined for several days in China, fueling hopes that the epidemic is peaking. But clusters of infections recently reported at hospitals in Beijing sparked concerns over the vulnerability of medical institutions in the city.
According to the Thursday briefing, a total of 22 people at the Peking University People's Hospital, including patients and medical workers, have been placed under quarantine for medical observation after an elderly patient in the hospital was confirmed with having COVID-19 on Feb. 18. More than 200 others are also being monitored for potential exposure to the virus.
The patient had been hospitalized at the People's Hospital for six months for kidney disease. She was likely infected by two family members who returned from Xinjiang on Jan. 16 and frequently visited her until Feb. 9, when the hospital closed to visitors.
Both her family members were diagnosed with COVID-19 by the People's Hospital on Feb. 17 after showing symptoms. The three have been transferred to a hospital for treatment, according to a hospital official at the briefing.
The kidney patient underwent regular renal dialysis during while at the hospital, allowing her to come into contact with many patients and medical workers. The People's Hospital has discovered more than 250 people who may have had close contact with her, including nearly 150 patients and 100 staff. So far, laboratory tests have not turned up positive among these contacts, according to the briefing.
The incident reminded many of Beijing's painful battle against the 2003 SARS outbreak. The capital, with a population of 21.5 million people, was one of the cities hit hardest by the epidemic, with more than 100 deaths. The People's Hospital was among several institutions in Beijing that was quarantined due to widespread SARS infections.
A doctor at the hospital told Caixin that the People's Hospital has closed the ward where the kidney patient was housed, and transferred other patients to another facility. Medical workers who had contact with the woman and her family are being quarantined in a hotel.
The Thursday briefing provided details about another infection cluster at Fuxing Hospital, also in downtown Beijing. As of Thursday night, a total of 36 novel coronavirus infection cases were confirmed at the hospital, including eight medical workers, nine cleaning staff and 19 patients and families.
Another prestigious hospital, Beijing Friendship Hospital, also reported a suspected case earlier this week, but was later cleared. Several other major hospitals in the city have closed inpatient departments to visitors as part of epidemic control efforts.
Hospitals and medical workers faced the highest risk of infection. As of Feb. 11, the government acknowledged more than 1,700 medical workers nationwide as confirmed carriers of the disease, almost 90% of them in Hubei, according to the National Health Commission. But a study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the actual number of medical worker infections could be twice as high as the official figure.
The Thursday briefing also shed light on how doctors can contract the virus. Wang Guangfa, a respiratory and intensive care doctor, visited Wuhan on Jan. 8 as a member of the NHC expert team to investigate the outbreak. Wang returned to Beijing on Jan. 16 and was diagnosed five days later.
Another doctor at a Beijing public hospital was infected after a visit to Wuhan on Jan. 10. A colleague was confirmed with the infection after sitting beside him at a meeting, according to the briefing.
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