As the number of cases of coronavirus disease, COVID-19, grows in China, some WHO experts continue to praise China's willingness to provide daily updates on case numbers but remain concerned over the circumstances in which so many health workers have become infected with the virus. Of particular note are reports from the epicenter that describe a lack of equipment and medical gear as well as overworked and stressed medical workers trying to keep up with the virus's spread.
For the first time, China disclosed information about the effect of the virus on medical workers — 1,716 medical workers have contracted the novel coronavirus and six have died. The World Health Organization said it is seeking more information about the conditions surrounding those infections.
"This is a critical piece of information because health workers are the glue that keeps the health system and outbreak response together," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He added that the body currently was not aware of the time period and circumstances in which those workers contracted the virus.
This week, the number of cases has skyrocketed to more than 64,400 cases, though it is thought some of those numbers are due to a change in reporting methodology and not from an acceleration in the spread of the disease. The death toll is up to 1,383 including three deaths outside of mainland China.
But with health workers, the infection numbers represent a fragile aspect of the response to the virus. Some have struggled to find treatment and diagnoses in a health system overwhelmed by the growth of the virus.
"We need to be pristine in our healthcare settings to make sure our healthcare workers are safe," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
She called the new coronavirus an "unprecedented public health threat" and said the CDC is working with five public health labs across the nation to conduct community-based influenza surveillance. Labs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York City will test for coronavirus in individuals presenting flu-like symptoms.
The CDC also confirmed that no healthcare workers in the U.S. have so far been infected, but transmission can be amplified if infection control practices are not closely followed.
Global experts remain focused on the outbreak and on supporting health workers, and a team of about a dozen international experts is expected to land in China this weekend on a WHO-led trip alongside Chinese counterparts.
Dr. Tedros confirmed the group would conduct a series of workshops, meet with relevant officials, and visit urban and rural settings.
He said the "goal of the joint mission is to rapidly inform next steps in COVID-19 response" and emphasized the importance of prioritizing "production and distribution of health equipment for health workers on the front lines."
Though the CDC has said it is preparing for a widespread outbreak in the U.S., the organization has said it has yet to receive confirmation from China it can send a team on the ground. The center also confirmed that 443 people in the U.S. have been tested across 42 states, with 15 confirmed cases.
Dr. Tedros's colleague told reporters on a press call Friday that he "believes we will have U.S. experts on that team" touching down in China.
Dr. Messonnier said she "hadn't seen that notice" but was "happy that was announced," and added that she "continues to hope that CDC staff will be included in that mission."