Tired and understaffed, medical workers have had to deal with thousands of new cases per week in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak that first emerged late last year.
Many doctors have had to see patients without proper masks or protective body suits, resorting to reusing the same equipment when they should be changed regularly.
Some have even worn diapers to avoid having to take off the equipment and make it last longer, according to a health official.
One doctor at a community clinic in Wuhan said he and at least 16 other colleagues were showing symptoms similar to the new virus, including lung infections and coughing.
“As doctors, we do not want to work while being a source of infection,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.
But “right now, there is no one to replace you,” the doctor explained, adding that all medical staff without a fever are expected to work.
“What would happen if there was no one working on the frontline?”
Grief and anger
Some 44% of the 42 600 cases nationwide – and the majority of more than 1 100 deaths – have been in Wuhan, home to a wild animal market where the virus is suspected of having originated before spreading between humans.
The risks medical staff are facing was highlighted on Friday after Li Wenliang, a whistleblowing doctor in Wuhan, succumbed to the disease more than a month after he first raised alarm about a new SARS-like virus in the city.
His death unleashed an outpouring of grief and anger on Chinese social media, with 10 academics in Wuhan circulating an open letter calling for political reform and freedom of speech.
The deputy mayor of Wuhan said on Friday the city faced a daily shortage of 56 000 N95 masks and 41 000 protective suits.
Medical staff in protective suits will “wear diapers, reduce how much water they drink, and reduce how many times they use the bathroom”, said Jiao Yahui, a top official at China’s National Health Commission.
Some of them will wear the same protective suit for six or even nine hours, when they should not be worn for more than four hours in a quarantined ward, she said last week.
“Of course, we don’t advocate this method, but medical staff really have no alternative,” she admitted.
The Chinese government has responded by mobilising the entire country to increase production of masks and suits.
Lack of transparency
As of Monday, three-quarters of mask and suit producers had resumed work following an extended Lunar New Year holiday, said Cong Liang, an official at China’s top economic planner.
China has also imported more than 300 million masks and about 3.9 million articles of protective clothing since January 24, an official said last week.
The Red Cross Society of China too has received over 900 million yuan ($129m) in donations for epidemic relief – though it has drawn scrutiny for its lack of transparency and efficiency.
“Even if we receive more masks, the number of patients increases even faster,” said a doctor at a major Wuhan hospital, who requested anonymity because she was not authorised to speak with media.
Each doctor or nurse uses two to four masks each day, she explained.
“The consumption of masks in the hospital is enormous,” she emphasised. “They have a permanent lack of masks.”
Doctors have also been forced to don makeshift hazmat suits, which are not adequate protection against the virus, said Xu Yuan, a 34-year-old in the US who donated $5 000 in protective equipment to former classmates working at Wuhan hospitals.