How COVID-19 Has Affected Medical Care For Non-Coronavirus Patients

Feb 22, 2020
Originally published on February 22, 2020 12:38 pm
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An all-out effort to stop the COVID-19 virus is underway in its epicenter, the Chinese city of Wuhan. Thousands of doctors have been diverted there. New treatment centers have been built in weeks to house coronavirus patients. But for those who struggle with other life-threatening health issues, medical care is still nearly impossible to come by. NPR's Emily Feng has been talking to people whose lives are at risk from the outbreak but not because they have coronavirus.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Victor Yu, aged 47, is not officially one of the more than 2,000 people killed by the coronavirus. He died February 19 from complications related to renal carcinoma, a common type of kidney cancer, but his early death very likely is related to the coronavirus outbreak. Here's his niece.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They kept delaying care. I think if he had gotten medical care immediately, his tumor would not have gotten so bad.

FENG: Yu's niece, like many in the story, did not want to give her name because China has been censoring and even detaining those critical of its handling of the outbreak, but she described her uncle's ordeal in detail to NPR over the phone. He'd been diagnosed in 2014 and needed constant hospital care. But on January 25, the hospital sent him back home. They wanted his bed for coronavirus patients.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Even people like him in critical condition couldn't get hospital care because every hospital is now geared towards treating the coronavirus.

FENG: Yu's condition worsened. He couldn't keep food down. He was in constant pain. Doctors told him he needed surgery to remove a tumor, but no hospital had the capacity to do it. Finally, on February 17, more than three weeks after being forced out of the hospital, he got a call from community officials. A hospital bed had opened up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) He finally did get the surgery, and it helped relieve a small part of his suffering.

FENG: But it was too late. Yu died two days after his surgery. He's among the unknown numbers of people who have likely died prematurely because of how strained medical resources are in the outbreak epicenter. One father NPR reached described being unable to schedule life-saving surgery for his child born with a rare genetic disease. Another person said he'd been unable to have the catheter of his father, a paralyzed diabetes patient, changed for weeks because of scarce medical staff. A pair of parents described how they were stuck in Wuhan, still under strict quarantine rules, and could not transfer their daughter to a hospital equipped to treat her type of cancer.

China has sent more than 21,000 extra medical staff to Wuhan, where about half of the virus cases globally have been. It's built around 20 mass quarantine and treatment centers in the city, and it's created thousands of additional hospital beds, but they're all reserved for coronavirus patients.

WANG BING: (Through interpreter) There are no hospital beds and no treatment options because there are no doctors and no medicine.

FENG: That's Wang Bing (ph), a Wuhan resident. His 62-year-old mother Jiangxao Hu (ph) finished her last round of chemotherapy for a type of leukemia in January only to find out last week that she still had cancer.

WANG: (Through interpreter) She also needs blood transfusions, but there's no one doing them now. I'm so tired of worrying about this.

FENG: Shortages of medical resources are not just happening in Wuhan or surrounding Hubei Province, where the outbreak has been the worst. Outright discrimination is stymieing others from getting the care they need. Miss Wang (ph) - no relation to Wang Bing - moved from Hubei Province to Shanghai last year with her mother. They wanted better treatment for her mother's cervical cancer, but now her mother's first operation cannot be scheduled because Shanghai hospitals say they're not treating outsiders during the outbreak, especially natives of Hubei Province like Miss Wang's mother.

MISS WANG: (Through interpreter) They should at least be treating critical cases first. Coronavirus is only one illness. Do people not get sick from other illnesses?

FENG: Miss Wang is waiting and hoping that help comes before it's too late, as it has for some in her native Hubei province. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.