How to battle the coronavirus and public panic at the same time

Wang Yong
The average national mortality rate of people confirmed to be infected with the virus is 2.1 percent ― 3.1 percent in Hubei Province and 4.9 percent in Wuhan. 
Wang Yong

How fatal is the novel coronavirus? Is a mortality rate of 2.1 percent high or low? Without a clear answer to these questions, public panic may well persist, causing unnecessary chaos.

An official with the National Health Commission said yesterday that as of February 3, the average national mortality rate of people confirmed to be infected with the virus was 2.1 percent. More specifically, it was 3.1 percent in Hubei Province and 4.9 percent in Wuhan, the provincial capital and epicenter of the epidemic.

Jiao Yahui, an official responsible for health polices and administration, said Hubei people accounted for 97 percent of Chinese who died from the disease. In other parts of China, she noted, the death rate is 0.16 percent for those infected.

“Don’t panic because right now we are focused on treating severely infected patients,” she said. “Actually, most patients are in moderate condition.” 

Moreover, she explained, most of those who died were elderly patients previously suffering from other diseases, like those affecting the health of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular systems. 

“Coupling these diseases with any kind of pneumonia will be highly risky,” she said. “It’s not that this new coronavirus-related pneumonia is particularly fatal.” 

However, she said it’s still difficult to calculate the exact rate of recovery. What she offered were examples of how many days a patient had been hospitalized before he or she was cured and released. For instance, excluding Hubei Province, the shortest period was five days (Hainan Province) and the longest about 13 days (Guangdong Province). In Hubei, the average period was 20 days, and the national average period (excluding Hubei) was about nine days.

Pan Shuming, vice president of Xinhua Hospital affiliated with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, corroborated Jiao’s view by saying most patients who died had literally suffered a second hit to their physical conditions already weakened by certain other diseases. “But given early detection and positive treatment, a patient’s condition after recovery could be controllable,” he said.

In the early stages of the fight against the virus, Jiao noted, patients in severe condition did not receive centralized treatment, as the three designated hospitals in Wuhan did not have enough beds to accommodate all those in need.

“Centralized treatment ensures that all severely infected patients receive professional service from doctors specialized in handling severe conditions, especially at a time when such professional hands are in short supply,” said Zhong Ming, an expert in intensive care from Zhongshan Hospital affiliated with Fudan University.

Centralized treatment is required not just for patients in need of intensive care, but also those in more moderate conditions. Wang Chen, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told Xinhua news agency that since February 3, Wuhan had begun to convert some convention centers and gymnasiums into temporary hospitals to accommodate less severely infected patients. 

“It’s important to segregate the suspected as well as less infected patients from their families and society,” he said. “If a large number of less infected patients stay home or suspected patients wander in communities, they will become a major source of contagion.”

The central government yesterday sent 2,000 more doctors to support Hubei Province, in addition to previous dispatches from across the country. Early detection and early isolation, a consensus among the country’s top medical experts, remain the best weapon against the virus. With more hospitals and doctors available in Hubei Province, situations there should improve. However, there is no guarantee.

Yesterday, a total of 3,971 new cases of suspected carriers were reported in China, including 1,957 from Hubei. However, the growth rate has decreased. On Monday, there were 5,072 new cases of suspected carriers nationwide, including 3,182 from Hubei. On February 2, there were 5,173 such new cases, including 3,260 from Hubei. 

Although the patterns of confirmed patients were not mentioned in the Xinhua report, a slower growth rate in the number of suspected carriers should bode well, Xinhua said. But a key issue now is how to stop or reduce possible cross contagion among patients once they are taken into centralized treatment in newly converted hospitals that usually feature a huge open space.

“Cross contagion is not an outstanding problem, as patients have the same pathogeny,” Wang Chen told Xinhua yesterday. He said more comprehensive health checks will be performed on patients as often as possible to reduce the risk of cross contagion before they are admitted for centralized treatment. He cautioned, however, that all safeguard measures must be well implemented in every aspect and detail.

Keeping the public informed about increasing numbers of medical professionals is a sure way to ease public fears. While more hospitals are under construction and more doctors join the fight, the People’s Daily today created a platform on its Good Doctor app to solicit messages for medical help to battle the virus. The publication is trying to coordinate medical resources for the needy, especially those yet to be treated in isolation.

What people need most is confidence in doctors, timely admittance to hospitals and high-quality treatment. To this end, both the hardware (hospitals) and the software (information about how to get timely treatment) need to be strengthened so no one is left high and dry.

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