China is turning to potentially risky measures to track down more patients of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 900 people. The number of infections from the new virus soared to cross 40,000 as of Sunday (Feb. 9).
At least three Chinese cities announced in the past week that they would stop the sale of medicines for fever and cough, two of the major symptoms for the new virus, so that people will go to hospitals for treatment instead of self-medicating and staying home. Other symptoms of the virus include muscle ache and shortness of breath, which can then progress to more severe respiratory distress.
Hangzhou, an eastern city of almost 10 million that is home to Alibaba and many other Chinese tech giants, announced on Friday (Feb. 7, link in Chinese) that on the advice of its coronavirus management team, all pharmacies in the city would stop selling fever and cough medications (link in Chinese) effective the next day. The measure will apply as long as the city remains at the highest level of public health alert level. “Citizens with these symptoms should go to the hospital as soon as possible,” the notice said.
Following Hangzhou, Ningbo and Sanya (link in Chinese), two southern Chinese cities with a combined population of nearly 8.6 million, also announced over the weekend they would halt the sale of the two medicines, to better track and treat the coronavirus. Southern Guangdong province, home to the tech hub Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong, has asked residents (link in Chinese) to register with their real names at medicine stores when they purchase the two drugs, so officials can follow up with them.
China’s health commission last month said (link in Chinese) that people who have a fever and see a drop in white blood cell count in a blood test, or are diagnosed with pneumonia, should seek testing in a hospital. The WHO has said people who have been in China, and who experience fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical care promptly, but should call ahead to health providers to inform them of the possibility of coronavirus infection.
Some residents worry that the new measures could lead some people who don’t have the virus to go to hospitals where they may be at risk of getting infected. A study on one batch of 138 cases of the virus showed a number of those infections appeared to have occurred in a hospital. There have also been numerous social media accounts of people with fevers and coughs going to hospitals and being sent back home because staff are busy with other patients, or kits to test throat swabs are in short supply.
“Is this policy reasonable? People could originally resolve the illnesses with drugs instead of going to hospitals to grab already stretched medical resources and being infected by others who have the virus,” said a user on the social platform Weibo (link in Chinese).
The measure comes as Beijing is determined to contain an epidemic whose death toll has surpassed that of SARS, the fatal coronavirus behind an outbreak that occurred in 2003 in China, and also spread globally. Beijing has reportedly ignored the help offered by CDC and may have delayed a visit from a World Health Organization team, according to the New York Times. The reluctance could be due to China’s leadership not wanting the world to think the country needs help, said the report, citing anonymous public health officials and diplomats. On Monday (Feb. 10), a WHO team departed for China.
For Beijing’s part, it has put millions of people on lockdown, barring them from leaving their cities or even their residential buildings. In recent days it also sent over 11,000 medical workers (link in Chinese) from across China to aid Wuhan. Sun Chunlan, the vice Chinese premier, inspected Wuhan on Saturday (link in Chinese) and said the city must “not miss a single patient” with the virus. Community workers are checking the fever status of people holed in neighborhoods, while officials will decide whether people will remain quarantined at home or be sent to quarantine camps, Xinhua said. China has moved to allow doctors to make a diagnosis using chest CT scans, which could be faster.
However, top-down orders urging local authorities to achieve certain goals can lead to extreme measures. Some cities, including Hangzhou, have locked people who returned from virus-stricken areas such as Wuhan in their flats with metal chains, while some villages have built barricades to prevent any outsiders from entering.
Online, the restrictive measures on medicines faced skepticism from many. “The government told us before if we only have a cold or fever we should not to go to the hospital to avoid being infected by the virus. But now it stopped the sale of the drugs, allowing us ordinary people to be caught in between,” said another Weibo user.