Beijing builds a 1,000-bed SARS hospital in eight days
Thursday, May 1, 2003
BEIJING -- Beijing didn't have enough beds for SARS patients in its hospitals, so it built a new one -- in eight days.
As city leaders struggled to bring in enough doctors and add more hospital beds to cope with its SARS epidemic, construction workers put the finishing touches Wednesday on the new 1,000-bed facility.
It was built in a former cornfield next to an ostrich farm north of Beijing. The Chinese capital's new mayor, Wang Qishan, said the first 195 patients were ready to move in.
The rows of white, one-story buildings ringed by a 15-foot-high red brick wall are the centerpiece of increasingly urgent efforts to defeat an outbreak Wang said, "remains severe."
The Health Ministry reported nine new fatalities in Beijing and two elsewhere Wednesday, raising the capital's death toll to 75 and the mainland total to 159. It said there were 166 new infections -- 101 of them in Beijing -- boosting the nationwide total to 3,460. Most of the capital's 1,448 cases are still hospitalized.
Only in mainland China is the respiratory disease continuing to spread uncontrolled, according to the World Health Organization.
Worldwide, the WHO reported 5,400 people infected with the new virus, with roughly 2,400 of those recovered. More than 353 have died. Generally, more than nine out of 10 people recover from SARS, although in China the death rate appears to be higher.
The U.N. health agency said Wednesday it would investigate reports in Hong Kong of 12 SARS patients who relapsed after being sent home from the hospital. Even so, officials say the worst in Hong Kong appears to be over, as is the case in Toronto and Singapore.
Wang, Beijing's new mayor who took office only last week, acknowledged there had been some panic and said calming the public was an urgent goal -- one he said could be achieved by improving the SARS recovery rate and stopping the spread of the illness.
"The panic and fear factor among the general public is a really big issue for us," Wang said at a news conference Wednesday that was shown live on Beijing television.
Worries about the disease prompted thousands of people to flee Beijing last week. Many who remain are staying home from work in hopes of avoiding the virus.
A written statement distributed by the mayor said the infection continued to spread. It said the 21 hospitals in Beijing assigned to handle SARS didn't have enough beds for all suspected cases.
Wang promised to add more hospital beds and bring in doctors and nurses from outside Beijing to help.
The new SARS facility, on the northern outskirts near the hot springs resort of Xiaotangshan, was built by 7,000 men and women working around the clock, the Xinhua News Agency said. They appeared to have slept under tarps among the cornstalks in the surrounding fields.
The facility is made of prefabricated panels. At the gate, two dozen members of the paramilitary People's Armed Police stood guard, dressed in green uniforms and white gauze face masks. A sign on a nearby guard hut told drivers to, "Stop, Roll up Windows, Prepare to Be Disinfected."
The ward is part of an effort Wang said already has cost $50 million. Much of that probably was spent in just the past two weeks after President Hu Jintao declared fighting SARS a national priority following weeks of criticism of China's slow response to the disease. The first reported case of SARS came from the southern province of Guangdong.
The steadily rising number of infections prompted Beijing to shut down its public schools last week, sending home 1.7 million students. Cinemas and other entertainment sites were told to close. Nearly 9,000 people have been quarantined.
Nationwide, the upcoming May Day vacation week that was to have started Wednesday has been cut short. Travel agencies are banned from taking tourists out of their home provinces.
Wang was appointed mayor last week after the former mayor was accused of mishandling the outbreak. China's health minister also has been replaced.
Wang denied speculation authorities were planning to seal off the capital -- a sprawling city of 13 million people -- or dust it from the air at night with anti-SARS medications.
"We haven't made any such decisions," he told reporters, many of whom wore gauze masks to the news conference. "There is no issue of sealing off the city, according to the present situation."
Rumors that martial law might be declared or that Beijing might be closed spread last week after police roadblocks were set up to check people in vehicles for SARS symptoms and the city said it would seal off buildings or areas with infections.
Wang tried to assure the public about the accuracy of government announcements on SARS, saying anyone who tried to cover up information "will be dealt with severely."
But he wouldn't say whether Beijing officials who have been accused of concealing information earlier might be prosecuted.