For more than two months, Dr. Hu Ke, who specializes in respiratory diseases, has been treating critically ill patients of COVID-19 in Wuhan City, the birthplace of a pandemic that still holds the world in check.
This 55-year-old pulmonologist receives Efe at the Wuhan University People’s Hospital, where he also works as a professor of pulmonary medicine and is part of the provincial team of experts appointed to combat the disease.
– QUESTION: What situation are we in now?
– ANSWER: Now, the Government is giving great importance to so-called asymptomatic patients, so we cannot relax surveillance. There are fewer and fewer of these types of patients, and there are fewer and fewer cases. Occasionally one or two. But the asymptomatic are not many.
– Q: What was the worst moment you experienced since the outbreak broke out?
– A: In the first stage of the epidemic, the number of cases was growing rapidly. In mid-January, patients kept increasing and hospital beds were limited. At that time, there were too many patients and we could not cope. It was complicated.
THE CLOSURE OF WUHAN WAS “ESSENTIAL”
– Q: What measures were taken to reverse the situation? How was the hospital collapse faced?
– A: The Government then took the right measures. In a short period of time, the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan Hospitals were built, and private health centers were requisitioned to treat patients. We entered everyone, built spaces to isolate patients with milder symptoms. Gyms, public spaces were used for that.
At the same time, medical personnel from other provinces came to help us treat the sick. I think this is the most important thing that other countries should do as well.
So three steps were taken. The first is to build those new hospitals. The second is to bring more than 40,000 medical professionals from other parts of the country to help here. Third, ask the country to urgently provide us with protective equipment and other medical equipment to solve this problem.
– Q: What would have happened if Wuhan had not closed?
– A: The closing took place on the eve of the Chinese New Year holiday. This period represents the largest migration on the planet. It is the Chinese tradition to come home to visit relatives. Our population would move in large numbers, more than any other country. For us, this measure was essential.
– Q: Should other cities follow suit?
– A: The closure of Wuhan was very important. Not only Wuhan: other small towns in Hubei province also closed. Closing the city, public transportation, banning crowds … were key to preventing the outbreak from spreading. They are important control and prevention measures. Wuhan has a population of over ten million people: determination is required to make such a decision.
“WE COULDN’T KNOW EVERYTHING”
– Q: However, other cities in the world have not opted for such strict quarantines or have done so late …
– A: Although cities have not closed in other countries, people have been asked to work from home. Restricting population movement also has certain effects. The principle is the same as that followed in Wuhan. After taking these measures, European countries have managed to slow down the growth of cases. The United States remains a problem.
Countries like Iran are also a problem. Some religious countries have the habit of meeting indoors, causing crowds. The Chinese measures were mandatory, that they are correctly carried out is also very important. Each country has different customs and cultures, and it is normal for the measures to change according to the country, but the lesson is the same for everyone.
– Q: Do you think Wuhan should have taken action before?
– A: You cannot talk about the first days because we had no experience dealing with this problem. Closing the city was a difficult decision. The rest have had to take it too. Did other countries have to have taken action before? Nobody knows. We cannot see the big picture of this epidemic and it is difficult to make decisions. We couldn’t know everything. But we do know that after two or three months of hard work, we have contained the virus. Why did other countries not learn the lesson?
– Q: What is the main risk for China now?
– A: This is a pandemic. Tens of thousands of people are sick, not counting asymptomatic and untested. It can be hundreds of thousands. The outbreak in Wuhan has been contained. China now has two problems: one, the so-called “imported” cases. There are many Chinese students and workers outside and they want to return to the country. Many of them are afraid, they don’t feel safe outside. China is the safest country right now and it’s easier to find treatment here.
But outside is different. I have heard cases of people who cannot access treatment if they only have a fever, or who have to pay a million for them if they do not have health insurance.
“NO DATE” FOR NORMALITY
– Q: When will normality return to China?
– A: The epidemic is practically under control in China. There is no specific moment in which it can be said that it has been overcome. I think asymptomatic cases are not going to be a big problem. The problem now here is the imported cases and their impact. There is no date because it will depend on how the situation develops in the rest of the world. We must protect ourselves from these cases, and hence the 14-day quarantines that have been imposed on those who come from abroad.
As for a regrowth, there are asymptomatic people who could be in the incubation period, but I repeat, this is going to be limited. I think that with the summer the epidemic will end, by June it will no longer be a problem. We have to follow the situation outside, if it can be controlled. But when it comes to China, I am very optimistic. Other cities and provinces have returned to normal and Hubei is already doing so. Wuhan will return to normal very soon.
– Q: What is your diagnosis for the rest of the world?
– A: I don’t dare make a prediction. There are more than 200 countries and regions in which the coronavirus is present. I have heard news such as that the UK wanted to implement a policy of “immunizing” the population. I have heard that there are people who are reproached for wearing a mask. This is something I don’t understand. I am not sick, but I have the freedom to use it. It is wrong to think that you only wear a mask if you are sick. They are not useless, on the contrary. It is a proactive prevention measure. This is my view, at least, and China’s experience in that regard has been satisfactory.
The rest of the world has to keep taking action. The shortest period of time to overcome the outbreak is one month. The maximum should be just over two, in Wuhan’s experience. Of course, material has arrived here, the medical personnel displaced to Wuhan were not infected, etc. At first, many doctors here also became infected. But those who came later did not. Why? For good protection. If New York doctors are afraid to go to work, if they don’t have a mask or suits, they face a big problem.
“I HAVE TREATED PATIENTS FROM THE END OF DECEMBER UNTIL NOW”
– Q: How many patients have you treated in total?
– A: I have treated COVID-19 patients almost every day from the end of December until now. Almost a hundred days. Today is an exception. I’m in charge of the fourteenth floor of the third building. On this floor there is space for 50 patients. At most, there are between 46 and 48, because we reserved two beds. There will now be around 26. If I had not accessed this interview today, I would now be visiting my patients. Every day, if I don’t have a meeting or something else to do, I’m always on call.
I don’t know how many patients I have already treated. In January we received consultations from 08:00 to 19:00, about 150 patients a day.
– Q: What kind of patients did you treat at your hospital?
– A: Our hospital dedicated it to the exclusive treatment of critically ill patients. Intensive care in hospitals is limited. We have conditioned many of them in order to serve them. So far, we have recruited some 1,500 people.
– Q: What has helped you to treat so many people?
– A: The experience of acute and severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. I have specialized in respiratory problems and have been treating pneumonia for a long time. The difference is the number of patients. Panic and anxiety are transmitted too. I have worked for almost a hundred days, but I have protected myself well and I have not been infected.
“I THINK THERE WILL BE NO SECOND WAVE IN CHINA”
– Q: What do you think of the medical certificates linked to the mobile phone?
– A: Supervision is very important. Everyone in Wuhan has a health certificate that is linked to our healthcare system. The difference is that that certificate is now constantly updated and linked to mobile phone applications. If you are infected, the code appears red. If you have been in contact with or close to a person who has later tested positive, your code will change from green to red immediately. We only give health certificates to people who are healthy.
People are going to leave and enter Wuhan and we must maintain a high level of vigilance throughout the country.
I am optimistic, I think there will not be a second wave of coronaviurs in China. There will be a few new patients every now and then, a few dozen, but that’s normal. It is like a little spark after a big fire.
– Q: Some media, including Chinese media, have published news that the death toll in Wuhan is much higher in light of the activity in the crematoriums. What do you think of this?
– A: That is speculation from journalists. Do you have data? What data do they have to affirm something like this? The truth is that no one knows. I am not saying that there were no cases (of deceased who were not counted as deaths by COVID-19), it may have something to do with the tradition of the Chinese. There are people who live in the countryside who, when sick, prefer to die at home. On the other hand, it cannot be said that since there are people who died at home from COVID-19, they may have died from any other disease. Journalists say that since there are people who died at home the number must be higher. Well, they are spreading rumors.
– Q: Could a COVID-19 patient undergoing treatment go home to die?
– A: Of course not. It is impossible that our hospital would let you out.
After finishing the interview, Dr. Hu escorts us to the car and says that China will be the first to get the vaccine, in only about three months: a question that he preferred to answer only when the cameras were turned off.