Wuhan doctor who worked with whistle-blower Li Wenliang dies after contracting coronavirus on front line

Wednesday, Mar 04, 2020

An ophthalmologist who worked with whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang on the coronavirus front line in Wuhan has also died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Mei Zhongming, 57, contracted the virus while he was working at Wuhan Central Hospital and died on Tuesday.

His 34-year-old colleague Li - who was silenced by police for sounding the alarm about the new virus strain - also died from the pneumonia-like illness last month, prompting an outpouring of grief and anger in China.

Mei is the third doctor from the hospital to die from Covid-19. Two days ago, Jiang Xueqing, head of thyroid and breast surgery, also died from the disease at the age of 55.

The hospital expressed condolences to Mei's family and praised his 30 years of service in a brief announcement on social network WeChat.

According to the official numbers, 13 doctors and nurses have died from Covid-19 and more than 3,000 have been infected in China since the epidemic began in the central city of Wuhan in December.

Hospitals in Wuhan and across the province of Hubei have been swamped with tens of thousands of patients, and health care workers treating them have also had to cope with a shortage of protective gear and medical supplies.

Part of Wuhan Central Hospital is located just 2km (1.2 miles) from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market - the place the first coronavirus patients were linked to.

The hospital started treating patients who had been in close contact with the market in the middle of December, the director of its emergency department Ai Fen told China News Weekly last month.

Doctors reported the cases to management but no action was taken to protect medical staff at first, and they were warned not to talk publicly about the respiratory illness, the report said.

Ophthalmologist Li posted a message to a closed group of medical school classmates on WeChat on Dec 30, warning them about an outbreak of a mysterious viral pneumonia at his hospital.

Two days later, Wuhan police announced that eight people had been punished for "spreading rumours". It was later reported that they were all medical staff and one of them was Li.

The young doctor fell ill on Jan 10, later saying that he was probably infected by an 82-year-old glaucoma patient. "The patient did not have a fever, and I didn't wear extra protection while taking care of her," Li wrote in his blog. "I was careless."

Li died from the illness on Feb 7, sparking widespread grief and fury over Beijing's crackdown on "online rumours", and calls for freedom of speech.

According to emergency department director Ai, staff on the front line at Wuhan Central Hospital began wearing N95 respirator masks and other protective gear in January as the number of virus cases jumped - but before authorities confirmed the virus was being transmitted between humans on Jan 20.

Despite the precautions, the first medical worker at the hospital was confirmed with the virus on Jan 10. More than 30 others from the emergency department alone have tested positive for Covid-19 since then, Ai told China News Weekly. The department has a staff of 200.

The hospital did not give details of how Mei contracted the virus. But a report from the Wuhan Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on February 18 said he had been infected after working long hours on the coronavirus front line.

Similarly, little information was released about Jiang's death on Sunday. His colleague Li Hai told official newspaper People's Daily that Jiang had been exhausted after working "non-stop" treating coronavirus patients.

Ian Lipkin, John Snow professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said the risks faced by health care workers were high, even with protective gear, as they had a very intimate relationship with their patients.

"In addition, those individuals who are working in hospital settings may be immunosuppressed because, frankly, they're exhausted… the viral load that they receive may be larger," Lipkin said in a briefing last month after visiting China at the invitation of the government.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of several young medical workers. Among the youngest was 29-year-old respiratory and critical care doctor Peng Yinhua, who worked at the Jiangxia district People's No 1 Hospital in Wuhan and died last month from the disease.

Peng had planned to get married over the Lunar New Year holiday but postponed his wedding to help treat coronavirus patients.

Another 29-year-old, gastroenterologist Xia Sisi, also died last month after she became infected while working at the Union Jiangbei Hospital in Wuhan.

The coronavirus has killed more than 3,100 people and infected over 92,000, mostly in China, since the outbreak began, and it has spread to more than 50 countries in every continent except Antarctica.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.