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Doctor tells of pressures on front line

By WILLA WU/LIU XIAOHAN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-03-21 08:15
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When Hong Kong was hit by its first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, infectious disease doctor Helen Chan Shuk-ying joined a task force of Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She was then facing a highly transmissible and unknown virus.

Since then, Chan has experienced several major changes. She has moved out of her apartment and now lives alone because she feared infecting her mother. Her work environment expanded from her department's wards to include emergency rooms and wards in other departments. She works from 7 am to 6 pm and, when she does evening shifts, sometimes until 11 pm.

"I love my job and don't fear the virus. In fact, it allows me to work as I originally hoped as an infectious disease doctor," Chan said during a one-on-one interview on Tuesday.

But having a positive attitude about the virus doesn't mean Chan never felt discouraged over the past two years. One moment in particular stands out. That was at the beginning of March, when Hong Kong was windy, experiencing low temperatures, and being battered by the fifth wave of the pandemic, the worst yet.

Many of those confirmed to be infected, mostly elderly people, had to lie on beds outdoors waiting for admission to Queen Elizabeth Hospital's Accident and Emergency Department. Chan, who has worked for the hospital for 15 years, said she had never seen anything like it.

"My colleagues were crying. They felt sorry they were unable to take care of the patients. We tried. But there were just too many patients," Chan said.

Things started to pick up in mid-March. Chan noticed the number of patients waiting to be seen in the emergency department dropped significantly, and more beds were available for patients in severe condition in the hospital's wards.

More designated clinics and newly built isolation facilities have come into service in the city, and all are capable of handling patients with mild symptoms.

According to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, there are now 23 designated clinics for COVID-19 patients, and six of the nine community isolation facilities, built with the central government's assistance, will open this month, providing about 20,000 beds.

On March 9, Queen Elizabeth Hospital became Hong Kong's first hospital designated to exclusively treat COVID-19 patients. Most of the patients with other disorders have been discharged or were transferred to another hospital.

Chan said that now nearly 90 percent of the people hospitalized in QE are COVID-19 patients.

"On the busiest days, one doctor will attend to 50 patients. Many doctors, despite having seniority in age and rank, work shoulder-to-shoulder with young front-line doctors," Chan said.

One time, she said, the gynecology department received 30 infected patients. She felt a bit sorry for the workers and went down to help. To her surprise, they turned her down, saying "You are already occupied. We are OK here."

"You see, they are fully prepared to handle the new situation," she said.

Speaking of her family, Chan was on the verge of tears. She said she felt sorry for them, especially her mother, and has not seen them since the fifth wave began. They usually talk on video calls these days.

"My mom is aging. I made a plan with her to bring her abroad before she is too old for that. But the pandemic prevents me from doing so," Chan said.

It is hard to say when the current wave will be brought under control. The number of daily confirmed cases remains high-14,000 to 20,000.

Chan said that the patients treated during the fifth wave had mild symptoms when they were admitted to the hospital. Some had received one dose of a vaccine, some had none at all, but they were in good health.

"So I appeal to all, as long as your condition allows, get vaccinated as soon as possible. That helps a lot in cutting down the death rate," she said.

Li Xiang contributed to this story.

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