BEIJING — More than 1,700 medical workers on the front lines of China’s battle with a new coronavirus have been infected, and six have died, medical authorities said on Friday.
The vast majority of the medics — 1,502 out of 1,716 — have fallen ill in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, said Zeng Yixin, deputy director of the National Health Commission.
It is the first time China is releasing an official count of infections among medical personnel during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The fact that there are over 1,700 health workers among all the cases of COVID is very sad news,” World Health Organization emergency chief Mike Ryan told a press briefing in Geneva.
However, the situation can be brought under control with the right kind of safety training, according to the U.N. health agency.
Infections of medical workers during outbreaks are usually not due to a lack of protective gear but to inadequate safety procedures, especially among exhausted staff who work around the clock, according to WHO infection specialist Sylvie Briand.
The U.N. health agency is seeking data from China on when and how these health workers were infected, Ryan said, adding that initial information suggests that virus transmission in medical settings has decreased in the past two weeks.
Public sympathy for medical workers exposing themselves to the disease has surged in China, especially after the death last week of Li Wenliang, a doctor from Wuhan who sounded an early alarm about the virus and was initially rebuked by authorities for doing so.
Videos were also circulating online about a Wuhan nurse who reportedly walks to work every morning, with her husband driving behind her to light her way, as she has decided to self-quarantine from her family to avoid exposing them to the virus.
Meanwhile, authorities said on Friday that the number of coronavirus infections across the country had reached 55,748, with 1,380 deaths.
In Hubei province alone, there were 4,823 new infections and 116 deaths registered beyond what was reported the previous day, according to regional authorities.
China corrected its national numbers after its initial daily update didn’t line up with previous data and figures issued for Hubei.
The National Health Commission said the discrepancy was due to subtracting the number of deaths from previous data because of “duplications” in the statistics from Hubei province.
The data mix-up comes a day after Hubei reported a sharp increase of more than 14,000 new patients battling COVID-19, which sparked heightened concern around the world.
That rise was mostly due to more than 13,000 earlier cases that were only added to the tally on Thursday, according to the WHO.
The numbers appeared to spike after diagnosis rules were changed for hardest-hit Hubei, meaning that going forward, lung screening results are also allowed as the basis for confirming infections rather than laboratory tests, which are used in the rest of China and abroad.
However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday that his agency is seeking clarification about the new diagnosis methods, “to ensure other respiratory illnesses including influenza are not getting mixed into the COVID-19 data.”
China has been accused in the past of underreporting the devastation produced by accidents and natural disasters.
Several European airlines — including Finnair, Lufthansa, Swiss International Air Lines and Austrian Airlines — announced they were extending their suspension of flights to and from China until the end of March.
The world’s airlines face potential revenue losses of between $4 billion and $5 billion in the first quarter as the coronavirus outbreak has led to widespread flight cancellations, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The virus broke out in December, with the earliest cases linked to a food market in the central Chinese industrial hub of Wuhan. It has since spread to about two dozen countries, prompting governments to put travel restrictions in place.
Egypt reported its first case on Friday, after a foreigner who arrived in the North African country tested positive. The person was in stable condition and put in quarantine, the Health Ministry said.
The ministry did not specify the affected person’s nationality.
In Germany, more than 120 people who were repatriated from China and placed under quarantine could be allowed to leave over the weekend.
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