Thousands of patients are being moved from overloaded hospitals in China's earthquake zone to neighboring provinces in an effort to ease the medical crunch as attention shifts from rescuing survivors to caring for the injured and preventing epidemics.
Premier Wen Jiabao said Saturday in the town of Yingxiu that 10,000 medical workers have been dispatched to the quake-hit area to stop the spread of disease. At his side, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged support for reconstruction.
All vehicles leaving the earthquake area are being sprayed with disinfectant at tollbooths and intersections.
The government suggested Saturday that the death toll could soar past 80,000, and the Health Ministry has reported that 300,000 people had been injured. Just half of the 59,394 who needed hospital treatment had been discharged as of Wednesday, the ministry said, leaving many wards in hard-hit Sichuan province overcrowded. Long convoys of ambulances can be seen on highways leading out of the quake zone.
At the Deyang People's Hospital No. 2, once-peaceful gardens meant to soothe convalescent patients are a sea of tents. The lawn has been stabbed with steel pipes and covered with plastic sheeting to create makeshift shelters as victims keep pouring in.
The manicured hedges double as clothes racks and drying platforms. Blankets are draped on statues to air. A row of attached blue plastic seats serves as an impromptu pharmacy. A vehicle shed is now a recovery room. Nearby, five blue emergency tents and a large military camouflage unit have become an outpatient ward.
Wang Xiaohong's leg was crushed when her house collapsed. The 23-year-old is two months pregnant and the fetus is injured. Her husband touches her leg lovingly. "We'll accept the doctor's advice and have an abortion," says Jiang Donghai, a 24-year-old factory worker, sitting on his wife's bed. "It's devastating to have the earthquake take our baby."
The couple got married just two days before the earthquake. She had quit her job, their house was destroyed, and now they've lost their baby. "But there's a nice open window there with sunshine and fresh air," he says. "And we feel lucky to be alive."
Yi Birong, 71, a retiree, sits in a corner with a gaggle of relatives and friends. His arm is in a splint made from wooden debris, his neck is strained and he has several bruises. But he's smiling and joking.
His eldest son, an employee at a coal mine, has been missing since the earthquake. A third of the coal mine's workers managed to scramble out, but the family fears the worst.
Most of the patients have lost everything. Asked what comes next, how they'll rebuild their homes, most say they're just trying to get through today, maybe tomorrow.
The hospital has had to cope with three times its normal load of patients, says Du Chen, a brain surgeon, who hasn't been home in days. "I expect this level of intensity will last for a good month," he says. "This is the hardest I've worked in my life."
In a country where medical costs are a huge concern for many poor people, the government is footing all the bills for basic care. "We don't even consider the payment issue," Du says.
Doctors and nurses are being helped by dozens of volunteers who empty bedpans, move beds and help the elderly.
"We all suffered in this disaster, so it's important to help others," says volunteer Liao Xingneng, 21.
"It's been a growing process to experience such horror," says Tian Yumei, 19, a student. "At first I could hardly bear all the blood, but now the experience has made me consider becoming a doctor."
Gao Wenhuan in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.