Beijing, China – As China scrambles to cope with its worst public health crisis since the SARS outbreak in 2003, people living in cities near Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, fear they are at increasing risk because hospitals and clinics do not have the resources needed to identify and treat those infected.
“We already ran out of protective suits a few days ago, and now we are using disposable raincoats to offer minimum protection,” a doctor at Xiaogan First People’s hospital in Hubei, who preferred not to be named, told Al Jazeera.
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“Please help us spread the word. We don’t know how long we can last.”
Xiaogan lies about 73 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
Even in Wuhan, where supplies are being sent and an emergency hospital is under construction, doctors say they are under-resourced and the hospitals designated to treat coronavirus patients have been dangerously packed for days.
Some have asked for donations from the general public and, thanks to campaigns via GoFundMe, Weibo, and WeChat, medical supplies are being sent from all over China to Hubei province – almost all are directed to Wuhan.
In the 13 municipalities outside Wuhan, unease is growing – that people are faced with an outbreak they do not have the resources to handle.
‘Please help us!’
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, provided work for many people coming from other cities in the province.
Before the city was sealed off on January 23, many of these people had already returned to their hometowns to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and there are concerns they might have unwittingly brought the virus with them.
“Please don’t forget about us! Hubei doesn’t only have Wuhan,” one netizen wrote on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform. “We need supplies! Please help us!”
In Xiangyang, the third-largest city in Hubei and home to more than five million people, there were zero confirmed cases as of January 25, but that has not brought any relief.
“There are no hospitals in Xiangyang that have the diagnostic kit and can provide diagnosis,” Yixin Yu, a resident of Xiangyang told Al Jazeera. “The most likely diagnosis you get is viral pneumonia and will be asked to go back home to exercise self-quarantine.”
“It can’t be that there are no infected people – it’s only that no case is being confirmed,” Yu added. Xiangyang is about 300 kilometres (186 miles) northwest of Wuhan.
The media office of the Xiangyang Local Health Commission told Al Jazeera that despite intensified efforts to try and diagnose patients and treat accordingly, local clinics and hospitals were overcrowded and there was a severe shortage of medical resources.
“We are aware of the situation in local hospitals,” the director of the office told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “We have liaised with our superiors and requested more diagnostic kits. We hope to get our hands on them as soon as possible.”
One of the biggest concerns across the province is that doctors cannot confirm an infection, or take necessary action, without the kit.
Some residents from cities outside Wuhan fear that means the number of cases is much higher than officially reported because of local hospitals’ inability to officially diagnose the infection.
Shortage of masks, goggles, suits
In Xiaogan, also home to five million people, patients reported that only the most severe suspected cases were referred for the diagnostic test and the rest were told to isolate themselves at home, leaving them at risk of developing the disease, spreading the virus and becoming even sicker.
“If you die alone at home, then you won’t go on record and no one will know that you died from the coronavirus,” one patient said during an interview with China’s nationally circulated weekly magazine, Sanlian.
More than a dozen cities in Hubei province have been sealed off to varying degrees, restricting the movement of more than 50 million people. That means that if there is no way to confirm a diagnosis in a provincial city, there is also no way to get a diagnosis anywhere else.
Apart from the difficulty in securing the supply of diagnostic devices, local hospitals have also said there is an urgent shortage of medical masks, goggles, gloves, and protective suits.
In Xiaogan, some doctors and nurses say they have been battling the deadly virus without any effective protective gear.
The doctor from Xiaogan First People’s Hospital said some of her colleagues had to tear apart transparent plastic file bags to cover their heads because there was no longer a supply of medical protective goggles.
In Jingzhou, about 220 kilometres (137 miles) west of Wuhan, doctors say they are also grappling with shortages.
“I can’t go and use the bathroom because every time I go, I’d have to change the protective suit and I call myself lucky that I have this one that I’m wearing already,” Lu, a doctor at Jingzhou Central Hospital, said.
Given the lack of supplies, some medical equipment manufacturing factories have summoned staff back to work during Lunar New Year.
Medical staff say the need is urgent.
Yuan, head of the department of public health at Qichun People’s hospital located at Huanggang, said they had solicited public donations of N95 respirator masks, goggles, medical gloves, and protective gear.
“Our resources are incredibly stretched, especially when Wuhan is taking priority over us,” Yuan said. “But of course, we understand that because Wuhan, after all, is taking the hardest hit.”