The announcement, which was made in the Communist Party-controlled press, confirmed what many already knew: front-line workers are falling, hurting the ability of an overburdened public health system to respond.
By acknowledging the toll on health professionals, Beijing is trying to signal a level of transparency on a flash-point issue, and letting ordinary people know they share their sense of alarm.
“It might raise a red flag about how serious the situation is,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and hopefully that leads to a more effective government response.”
But Huang cautioned against seeing the figure as the final word on medical workers, given discrepancies in case reporting so far. “If it is coming from an official source, we have to take it always with a grain of salt,” he said.
The question of how medical personnel are faring in this crisis has been front and center since the early days of the response.
In late December, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, told a group of fellow medical school alumni in a private chat that seven people had contracted a SARS-like virus and one patient was quarantined at his hospital.
After the messages started circulating, China’s censors swept into action. Li was detained and released days later after signing a police document admitting that he committed an illegal act by making “untrue statements” on social media and promising that he would “earnestly reflect” on his mistakes.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials launched a propaganda campaign warning would-be “rumormongers,” probably chilling any more whistleblowers in Wuhan.
The police were later admonished for silencing medical personnel. But that did not save Li, who was infected with the virus. He died Feb. 6, prompting a national outpouring of grief and rage.
Outrage over Li’s death focused public attention on the conditions front-line health workers face. Photos and video from Wuhan has shown exhausted doctors and nurses working in overflowing hospitals.