Chicago doctor who treated coronavirus in Wuhan says lessons learned offer hope for Illinois

ABC7 I-Team Exclusive
CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's been almost three months since COVID-19 was first declared a global public health emergency and it's been three months since Chicago doctor Shu-Yuan Xiao was in Wuhan, China, where it began.

ABC7 Investigative Reporter Chuck Goudie talked exclusively with Xiao, who continues to monitor the virus in the United States and China.

Xiao was on a University of Chicago Medicine lecture and research tour in his hometown of Wuhan in mid-January when the coronavirus outbreak was ramping up.

As with all of his U of C trips there, social distancing could be measured in inches.

But then came the crisis. And Dr. Xiao, a pathologist, was more familiar with lab than the bedside when he began tending to patients in need.

For Xiao and those patients, it would be a life-changing, life-saving January.

"Professionally we all have made a commitment that you're committed to some job and you should do it. I think that's the most important reason," Xiao said.

Last month the I-Team reported on Xiao's heroic efforts in China when he volunteered to help treat coronavirus-stricken patients. Now, 7,300 miles away he's back on the job in Chicago where the virus is again claiming lives.

RELATED: Chicago doctor stayed in Wuhan at start of coronavirus outbreak to help fellow doctors, clinics

"No one knows exactly how many people what proportion of people infected in each population, because all the figures just depend on your test or sensitivities and how many people are testing," Xiao explained.

Even though Wuhan is five times larger than Chicago, and its residents live in much denser conditions, COVID-19 death rates for the two cities are about the same and Chicago's coronavirus infection rate is slightly higher.

Xiao said it may be because Wuhan imposed a very strict lockdown.

Earlier this week, the last 12 coronavirus patients were released from a Wuhan hospital; a sharp turning point for the city where it all started.

Xiao said Illinois' crisis might even have been worse had it not been for early intervention by state and local governments.

Has anything changed in terms of the anatomy of the germ?

"So, there are some mutations that have been reported in literature from different labs, however there's no dramatic changes in terms of the genome sequence," Xiao said. "However, there's no major mutation that will cause the change in virulence or transmits abilities."

And that, he said, is a good thing. But he is predicting the virus could flare again this fall or winter.

"So, the safe thing to say is that this this epidemic will come back at some point," he said. "But whether that is going to be more severe, I can only guess based on the fact that, that is, if we are having, as some people have suggested, that maybe like 30 percent of people have had asymptomatic infection. Then, at least we have some level of immunity."

Until the fall or winter wave, Dr. Xiao is practicing telemedicine and telepathology, working on research projects, writing commentaries about the virus and trying to stay optimistic.

"I don't think that we have total control of the situation. No one is in control. But we just have to do our best. And I hope that it will not happen to you, or the when it happens to you, you hope that you only get to the asymptomatic infection," Xiao said.

Despite being at the epicenter of the pandemic when it began, Xiao said he's managed to avoid getting sick by practicing what he preaches: getting enough sleep, nutrition, exercise and keeping social distance.
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