With authorities slow to recognize this latest outbreak as a new virus and even slower to warn people of it, the number of infections has continued to rise rapidly. The number of confirmed cases rose by almost 2,000 between Saturday and Sunday alone, despite stringent restrictions placed on movement from Hubei province.
The outbreak could be much worse than it appears even now, and could get dramatically worse over the next week or two, according to a new study by University of Hong Kong scientists that was published in The Lancet on Saturday.
They found that as many as 75,815 people in Wuhan had been infected with the coronavirus by Jan. 25, based on an assumption that each infected person could have passed the virus onto 2.68 others. It also said that epidemic was doubling every 6.4 days.
If the virus was spreading at a similar level around the country, “we inferred that epidemics are already growing exponentially in multiple major cities of China with a lag time behind the Wuhan outbreak of about 1-2 weeks,” the scientists wrote.
In trying to contain the outbreak, Hubei officials continue to speak in a terms of an epic battle against what Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called a “devil” virus.
“Cadres at all levels should truly show a wartime spirit,” the Hubei state newspaper exhorted after a meeting of provincial pneumonia prevention headquarters.
Medical advice over the past two weeks has emphasized the need to wear masks to stop transmission through respiratory droplets from the mouth and nose. But Chinese authorities are now saying that the virus can be passed from fecal matter.
Researchers from Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University and the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported this weekend that there had been fecal-oral transmission. It warned medical workers to “protect themselves against vomit and feces of patients.”
In Shenzhen, on China’s southern border with Hong Kong, scientists at the Third People's Hospital said the stool samples of infected people had tested positive for the virus, further suggesting that it could be transmitted through feces in addition to through respiratory droplets.
Health officials urged good personal hygiene, and especially washing hands well and often.
“When mildly ill patients are isolated in their homes, they and their family members should pay special attention to hygiene, and they should avoid sharing bathrooms with family members as much as possible,” officials said, according to the China News Network.
But as the virus continues to spread and new cases continue to emerge, anger is mounting about the lack of access to protective equipment, especially the face masks that the authorities are urging be worn in public places.
With stores and online shopping sites sold out of masks, many cities across the country have launched an online booking system or lottery system for masks.
In Guangzhou in the south, each person can reserve up to five masks a day, although those in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, are allowed only one. The southeastern seaboard city of Xiamen, authorities have launched a lottery system for residents.
Masks and other basic protective equipment like goggles and gloves are in such short supply that Hubei hospitals have been openly appealing for donations on social media.
There is growing criticism about the shortage of masks and particularly about the distribution of the masks after a video emerged of a man taking a box of masks apparently donated to the Red Cross Society in Wuhan. Rumors spread that the man was diverting the masks for local leaders, rather than for their intended recipients, prompting state news outlets to claim that he was simply delivering them to their rightful place.
A list of the materials donated to the Red Cross Society of China’s Hubei Branch showed that 36,000 masks had been given to two private hospitals in Wuhan, while the public Wuhan Union Hospital, whose doctors have been working at the front line in fighting the coronavirus, had only received 3,000.
One Wuhan doctor said that his hospital had not received a single mask from the Red Cross, one of the few officially recognized organizations permitted to handle civic donations.
In a post on social media, since deleted by censors, the doctor said his hospital had only 300 N95 masks left, barely enough for a day. “Fortunately we got a batch of donations from America, 500 U.S. FDA standard N95 masks. It made us so happy because we could last one more day!”
One netizen even called the Wuhan Charity Federation and other such groups “pixiu,” a mythical winged animal that eats but never defecates, accusing them of receiving more than $80 million in donations but spending none of that amount on the public. That post has also been deleted by China’s zealous Internet police, which tries to swiftly stamp out any criticism of the ruling Communist Party.
In apparent recognition of this growing discontent, Premier Li Keqiang, who is leading the party’s efforts to prevent and control the coronavirus outbreak, went to the national hub for medical supplies in Beijing over the weekend.
Li “called for all-out efforts to ensure the provision of key medical supplies and create necessary conditions to win the battle against the outbreak,” the Foreign Ministry said Sunday in a statement about his visit. He also urged “further refinement” of the ways equipment was allocated, noting that “the priority is to meet the needs of medical workers selflessly saving lives on the front lines.”
Echoing the military language of the state media, Li said medical supply manufacturers were “like military contractors producing for the ‘arsenal’ in this battle against the epidemic.”
Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.