Wuhan’s new hospitals are sorely needed, but they won’t stop the spread of disease

It’s impossible to catch every case.

a blurred shot of hospital workers wheeling a gurney
The huge facility will help streamline treatment.DepositPhoto

At least 427 people are dead and more than 20,000 people are sick in what the World Health Organization has labelled a “global health emergency.” The epicenter of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak is Wuhan, a city in Central China, and its province, Hubei. As public health officials around the world work to prevent person-to-person transmission of this new contagion, authorities in China are wrapping up construction on a 645,000-square-foot hospital to house 1,000 of Wuhan’s sickest people.

The Chinese state media has promoted the construction of the new facilities, echoing what happened with SARS in 2003. Then, the government built Beijing’s Xiaotangshan Hospital in seven days. But some of what’s being shared about the facilities is not true: for instance, last week state media released a supposed image of one of the new hospitals that actually showed an apartment building elsewhere in China.

But while The New York Times reported on Monday that the Huoshenshan Hospital still appeared to be under construction, it has already admitted its first wave of patients. Another hospital with 1,500 beds is supposed to be completed later this week, according to the Associated Press. Experts say these facilities will provide much-needed extra space for the city’s strained medical system.

As of Monday, as many as 4,000 people were sick with 2019-nCoV in Wuhan alone, says Lisa Gralinski, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina who has written about the new coronavirus. And that’s just those with confirmed diagnoses—reports indicate that even finding somewhere with the space to test a patient for 2019-nCoV is difficult, with some people visiting multiple hospitals in search of care.

“They just have a massive need for additional hospital space,” she says. The Chinese government is currently reporting that there are more than 2,000 patients in “serious condition” in mainland China, although they have not divided that number up by region, and it is unclear what metric they are using to determine the severity of cases.

The symptoms of 2019-nCoV are respiratory infection, cough, difficulty breathing, and fever, according to the CDC. For many people, these symptoms will not become severe, although it’s important to note that anyone can potentially develop deadly pneumonia as a result of the disease, and the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions appear to be more vulnerable.

At a reported 1,000 beds, the purpose-built hospital is “huge,” says Jessica Fairley, associate professor of medicine and global health at Emory University. The Economic Times of India reports that it took a crew of 7,000 workers to get it built in time, and that some 1,400 doctors, nurses, and other personnel are already in place to staff it. But given the need for more facilities to provide care for the sick, building more space makes sense, she says. The new coronavirus outbreak “is really straining, immensely, the hospitals that are there,” she says. Having a facility dedicated solely to this illness will, at least in theory, streamline treatment.

“It will make treatment easier for… healthcare professionals, if they know that everyone in this building has the same disease,” says Gralinski. Hospital workers will know exactly which precautions to take with every patient to avoid infection, she says, and they’ll be looking for similar symptoms.

Times reporter Amy Qin tweeted on Tuesday that a makeshift hospital had also been set up in the city’s exhibition center for less-severely affected 2019-nCoV patients.

“Having additional facilities on hand to be able to help these patients, even before you get into thoughts about isolation or quarantine, is going to be immensely helpful for them in treating the people affected by this outbreak,” says Gralinski.

However, these new facilities are unlikely to slow the local spread of the virus. Indications online are that the only people being admitted to the new hospital are those who have been confirmed to have 2019-nCoV. Many people who have it may never be diagnosed, and may get better on their own or even fail to have noticeable symptoms in the first place—all while potentially spreading the disease to others.

In the past few weeks, the Chinese government has placed Wuhan and surrounding cities on lockdown, severely curtailing people’s ability to travel. But completely isolating all patients who have or are suspected of having 2019-nCoV is impossible.

While other countries—the United States included—are trying to prevent person-to-person transmission of 2019-nCoV from becoming a norm, the citizens of Wuhan are already living with that reality.

“We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic,” Nancy Messonier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Monday. Chinese officials appear to be doing the same.

For the latest on 2019-nCoV, check out this regularly-updated post.