Wives spoke of too few masks before they died

Elaine Wu

Widowers weep as they tell inquest how hospital staff who died of Sars complained about lack of protection

Two medical workers at United Christian Hospital had complained to their husbands, before dying of Sars last year, that the public hospital had not provided them with enough surgical masks, the Coroner's Court heard yesterday.

Kong Hak-kan, widower of technical services assistant Tang Heung-may, said she had told him there was a limited supply of surgical masks and staff had to use them sparingly.

They had to sign for the masks and could not take any to wear after work, he said.

Mr Kong was speaking at the inquest into the Sars deaths of his wife and five other medical workers last year.

Tang was working as an assistant at a female internal medicine ward of the Kwun Tong hospital before she contracted Sars in late March.

The ward was also where health-care assistant Lau Kam-yung, another subject of the inquest, worked before she contracted Sars and died.

Ten other medical workers from the same ward also caught the disease - eight nurses, a ward manager and one other health-care assistant, the court heard.

The 47-bed ward was not a designated Sars ward. It admitted patients with various illnesses, including those with respiratory and heart problems, the court heard.

The whole ward was closed on April 3, shortly after Tang and Lau started developing Sars-like symptoms.

Lau's widower, Chan Kam-yuen, said she was only given two surgical masks per shift before she came down with the illness.

He and Mr Kong recounted the conditions of their wives and the events before their deaths. Both men dried their tears while recalling their conversations with their wives while they were critically ill in the hospital.

Both their wives were responsible for feeding patients and cleaning their bedpans.

Lau had more contact with patients and had to take their blood pressure and temperature, according to her supervisor, nursing officer Chong Yuk-yin.

Earlier yesterday, Tuen Mun Hospital chief executive officer Cheung Wai-lun testified in relation to the deaths of nurse Lau Wing-kai and doctor Joanna Tse Yuen-man.

Differing from other hospital workers' evidence, Dr Cheung said the hospital had improved its ventilation system in mid-March last year, before there was a designated Sars ward.

He said P100 masks were made available to hospital staff in April - not in May, as a former Tuen Mun Hospital doctor had said.

He said the protection levels of the P100 and N95 masks available in hospitals were the same.

Some people may have got the impression the P100 masks were safer because they saw Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, who led the Prince of Wales Hospital's Sars team, wear them on television, Dr Cheung said.