By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor

While one would have expected a primary care or emergency room doctor to be the first to have warned about the virus that became known as COVID-19, the doctor who issued the first warning was an ophthalmologist. On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan Central Hospital suspected SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in seven quarantined patients, all from the Huanan Seafood Market. SARS is a type of coronavirus, and the World Health Organization (WHO) officially named COVID-19 as a new or ‘novel’ coronavirus on February 11, 2020. Dr. Li privately warned his colleagues of a possible SARS outbreak, more than a month before WHO gave the virus a name. The warning subsequently leaked, and Dr. Li was censured by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau for “untrue statements."

Dr. Li returned to work at the hospital after having been admonished for claiming the outbreak. There, he treated a patient for glaucoma, not knowing that the patient was asymptomatic for coronavirus. A day later, the patient began to show symptoms, and two days later, so did Dr. Li. The New York Times interviewed Dr. Li while he was hospitalized and asked when he realized how contagious the virus was. Dr. Li responded, “I knew it when the patient I came in contact with infected her family, and I was infected right afterward. Thus I discovered it was highly contagious. The patient had no symptoms, so I got careless.” Sadly, Dr. Li succumbed to the virus on February 7, 2020 at 33 years of age. Three days before his death, however, Dr. Li received word that the Supreme People’s Court ruled that he should not have been punished for his warning, noting, "It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the 'rumors' then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures, and avoid the wild animal market." Dr. Li has been called a hero around the world for his first alert.

Dr. Li’s tragic story underscores the risk that all healthcare workers take, including eyecare professionals. COVID-19 emerged as a virus no one had seen in humans before, but there it was. The world had neither treatment for it nor prevention, and no knowledge of how it was transmitted. It has taken time and, unfortunately, many lives to begin our understanding of this disease, and in the interim, healthcare workers have continued to care for the stricken. As we continue to learn more, we know from what we have already seen that even after this virus is conquered, there is little we can take for granted, especially as eyecare providers who literally work face to face with patients. We will routinely screen patients for symptoms of illness, continue handwashing and disinfecting regimens, make use of remote examination and screening, and use personal protective equipment. We will go forward better able to protect our patients and ourselves.

Learn about best practices for in-office infection control with our CE, The Hygienic Optician, at This course is free through a generous educational grant from The McGee Group.