Coronavirus inflicts growing toll on China’s health workers

The latest:

  • 8th presumptive case of coronavirus identified in Canada
  • China’s National Health Commission reports 5,090 new coronavirus cases on the mainland, for a total of 63,851.
  • Health commission reports 121 new deaths, bringing the death toll in mainland China to 1,380.
  • Chinese official says 1,716 health-care workers have been infected, and 6 have died.
  • WHO says full team of international experts will be on the ground in China this weekend.
  • Egypt confirms 1st case, says patient is in isolation at hospital.
  • Japanese officials allowing some Diamond Princess passengers to disembark and complete their quarantine on land. 12 Canadians among the passengers with COVID-19.
  • Public health officials say risk is low in Canada.
  • WATCH: What we know about the coronavirus

Canada has an eighth presumptive case of coronavirus, British Columbia health officials say.   

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said Friday afternoon the province has identified its fifth presumptive case. The new patient is a woman in her 30s from the B.C. Interior who recently travelled to China, she said. 

“Presumptive” means the case needs to be confirmed by Canada’s National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. 

There have been four confirmed cases in B.C. and three others in Ontario, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The risk to Canadians remains low, the agency says. 

The vast majority of coranavirus cases remain in China’s Hubei province, where the illness has taken a growing toll on Chinese health workers on the front line of the fight to stop the outbreak, a top official said Friday.

Overall, China’s National Health Commission said it had recorded 121 new deaths and 5,090 new coronavirus cases on the mainland on Thursday, taking the total number of infected to 63,851.

Some 55,748 people are being treated, while 1,380 people have died of the virus that emerged in December in Wuhan, the capital of the central province of Hubei.

The latest toll of the virus, which causes an illness called COVID-19, takes account of some deaths that had been double-counted in Hubei, the commission said.

A worker installs plastic film to separate the front seats from the back, inside a vehicle for a car-hailing service in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. (cnsphoto via Reuters)

Zeng Yixin, the Chinese health commission vice minister, said 1,716 health workers had been infected and six had died as of Tuesday, with the number of infected staff rising.

“The duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy; their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great and the risk of infection is high,” Zeng told a news conference.

China recently changed the way it is reporting data from the hard-hit Hubei province to include positive cases diagnosed by CT scan. The World Health Organization (WHO), which provides its own daily tally of cases, as of Thursday included only cases that had been confirmed with a lab test.

WHO investigates spread and severity

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, said at a briefing Friday that the Geneva-based health agency is seeking further clarity from China on how health workers in Hubei are arriving at the clinical diagnosis to ensure other respiratory diseases like the flu aren’t being mixed into COVID-19 data.

A WHO-led joint mission with China will start its outbreak investigation work this weekend, focusing on how the new coronavirus is spreading and its severity, Ghebreyesus said.

The mission will also seek more details on how, where and when the more than 1,700 health workers contracted the virus.

“Particular attention will be paid to understanding transmission of the virus, the severity of disease and the impact of ongoing response measures,” Ghebreyesus said. 

WATCH: WHO officials talk about diagnosis of health-care workers.

The WHO says the percentage of health-care workers infected by the coronavirus is lower than other recent outbreaks. 3:07

 An advance team, led by Canadian Dr. Bruce Aylward, is already on the ground.

Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, said news that more than 1,700 health-care workers have been infected was “very sad news” but not unheard of in previous coronavirus outbreaks.

Ryan said WHO officials will work with China to better understand how health-care workers are getting infected, so that those on the front lines can be better protected.

Chinese officials and hospitals have repeatedly spoken of a shortage of protective equipment, including face masks. WHO officials reiterated Friday that they have been in touch with producers to urge increased production.

Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs and preliminary results are due in weeks, while the head of a hospital in Wuhan, where the outbreak emerged, said plasma infusions from recovered patients had shown some encouraging preliminary results.

Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 11 million people, has been hardest hit by the coronavirus.

With all public transport, taxis and ride-hailing services shut down in the city, volunteer drivers are responding to requests on ad hoc messaging groups to ferry medical staff and others in vital jobs to and from work, risking their own health.

Others work round the clock to find accommodations for medical workers in hotels that have volunteered rooms.

“Everyone in our group has such a strong sense of mission,” said 53-year-old Chen Hui, who runs one of the ad hoc ride services.

Beijing imposes self-quarantine 

On Friday, Beijing imposed a 14-day self-quarantine on people returning to the capital city from holidays to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and threatened to punish those who fail to comply. 

“Those who refuse to accept home or centralized observation and other prevention and control measures will be held accountable under law,” the notice from Beijing’s virus prevention working group published in the Beijing Daily newspaper said.

A nurse, left, looks at a one-year-old boy as his father and mother speak to the media during a ceremony marking their release after recovering from COVID-19 at the Youan Hospital in Beijing on Friday. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

It was not immediately clear how the restriction would be enforced, or whether it would apply to non-residents of Beijing or foreigners arriving from abroad.

A top Chinese official, in an interview with Reuters, acknowledged that coronavirus was a deep challenge, but defended the country’s management of the epidemic.

State Councillor Wang Yi, who also serves as China’s foreign minister, said China has taken the most rigorous and decisive measures to fight the epidemic, with many efforts going beyond international health regulations and WHO recommendations. 

“Through our efforts, the epidemic is overall under control,” he said.

China is struggling to get its economy going after the annual Lunar New Year holiday, which was extended for 10 days to help contain the outbreak.

A man wears a gas mask in Hong Kong as he holds a bouquet of flowers on Friday. In mainland China, there are now 63,851 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness, of which 1,380 have died. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

There’s no sign the outbreak is nearing a peak, said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

“While the Chinese authorities are doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the fairly drastic measures they have implemented to date would appear to have been too little, too late,” he said.

In cities such as Beijing and the business hub Shanghai, streets and subways remain largely deserted with many shops and restaurants empty or shut.

Government employee Jin Yang, 28, made it to his Beijing office but found it “anything but normal.”

Canteen lunches are banned in favour of boxed meals eaten at desks. Meetings are held online, not in person. Employees must wear masks all day and report their temperature twice a day.

Egypt confirms 1st case

While the vast majority of infections and deaths have been in China, in particular Hubei, there have been nearly 450 cases in some 24 countries and territories outside mainland China, and three deaths.

Egypt confirmed on Friday its first coronavirus case and said the affected person was a foreigner who had been put into isolation at hospital. The health ministry said it had informed WHO immediately and had taken all necessary preventative measures.

Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death on Thursday — a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa, near Tokyo. One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.

Some Diamond Princess passengers disembark

The biggest cluster of infections outside China has been on a cruise liner quarantined in a Japanese port, with 218 people on board confirmed as infected and taken off to hospital.

On Friday, some of the ship’s passengers were allowed to disembark — with priority for older passengers confined to windowless cabins — and complete their quarantine on shore.

François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, said 12 Canadians who were on the Diamond Princess have been infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Those passengers are all being monitored at Japanese health facilities, he said.

Hans and Lolita Wiesner are among the Canadians on the Diamond Princess.

The pair, from Joffre, Alta., met on Valentine’s Day 48 years ago.

“This is definitely the strangest one we’ve ever had,” Hans said of their anniversary, which is being spent under quarantine.

The Wiesners have been monitoring their temperature and are in good health, Hans said, adding that a positive attitude has helped them as they pass time in tight quarters.

WATCH | Canadian couple spend anniversary on ship under quarantine

Albertans Lolita and Hans Wiesner are celebrating a very special anniversary – on board the Diamond Princess. 5:53

Speaking from Europe on Friday, Champagne said consular officials have been deployed to Yokohama, as have three staff members from Canada’s health agency and two medical personnel from the Canadian Forces. 

There was good news for passengers on another cruise ship that was finally allowed to dock in Cambodia after being rejected by five countries over fears of the virus, even though no cases were reported on board.

The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked in Sihanoukville port late on Thursday. It had anchored offshore earlier to allow Cambodian officials to board and collect samples from passengers with any signs of illness.

Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the passengers with handshakes and bouquets as they stepped off the ship and boarded a bus.

“My wife and I gave him some chocolates as a show of our appreciation,” Lou Poandel, a tourist from New Jersey, told Reuters after meeting the Cambodian leader.

Separately, Royal Caribbean Cruises said it had cancelled 18 cruises in southeast Asia and joined larger rival Carnival Corp. in warning that its full-year earnings would be hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

In Singapore, which reported its biggest jump in cases to date on Thursday — up eight to 58 —  authorities were scrambling to find “patient zero,” the person who carried the disease into a company meeting last month, setting off a chain of infections linked to five other countries.

In Canada, hundreds of people are still living under quarantine at CFB Trenton after returning from the Wuhan area on chartered flights. 

Wayne Duplessis had planned to wait out the outbreak in Wuhan, but changed his mind when he saw how difficult it had become to get even basic supplies. He and his family are now among the people spending 14 days in quarantine at the Ontario military base.

WATCH | Wayne Duplessis describes being in quarantine at CFB Trenton

Wayne Duplessis and his family are quarantined at CFB Trenton after a difficult journey to get out of China. 5:10

Duplessis, who works as a teacher in China, told CBC News Network he has a little more than a week left in quarantine.

“It’s not a pleasant experience, but they’re making it really pleasant with their professionalism and their attitude,” he said of the team at the base.

Economists are scaling back growth expectations for the world’s second-largest economy as they assess the impact of the outbreak.

China will grow at its slowest rate since the global financial crisis this quarter, according to a Reuters poll of economists who said the downturn would be short-lived if the outbreak was contained.

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization forecast that global airline revenue could fall by $4 billion US to $5 billion US in the first quarter due to cancellations linked to the outbreak.

WATCH | Infectious disease specialist takes your questions about coronavirus:

Dr. Michael Gardam, who was on the front lines during the SARS crisis, answers pressing questions about the coronavirus outbreak.  8:47

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