BEIJING        -      Chengdu, China - Working long, intense hours, Liu was one of the first healthcare workers to come to the front line to fight the coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 1,770 people and infected 70,548 others in mainland China.

For days, she helped dispense medicine and administer intravenous therapy to infected patients at a crowded hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.

Then on January 26, just three days after Wuhan was placed under a lockdown, she developed a dry cough and started to get a fever.

“When I was admitted to the hospital, a colleague of mine burst into tears and said she was so scared and so tired,” said Liu, who asked Al Jazeera to identify her only by her last name.

“At that time, we already had at least 150 colleagues who had either confirmed or suspected to have been infected - we’re all very scared.

“Every time someone comes into the ward, I’d try to hold my breath and not talk, because I’m afraid that the virus would spread that way,” said Liu.

For the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s National Health Commission reported on February 14, that at least 1,716 health workers had been infected while treating patients with the virus. This has raised concerns about the capability of the government to protect the caregivers in direct contact with the afflicted.

Zeng Yixin, the deputy director of China’s health commission said during a news conference on Friday that infected medical workers comprise 3.8 percent of all those who have contracted the virus across the country.

He told the public the number would not rise as China was increasing its efforts to ensure that supplies of protective equipment for medics would be adequate. However, the high number of coronavirus deaths in China has already set off warning bells in the medical community.

“1,700 is a very large number and shows healthcare workers are at clear risk of infection elsewhere in China and globally,” Tom Inglesby, the director of Johns Hopkins SPH Centre for Health Security, wrote on social media.

“Hospitals need administration controls, engineering controls, and supplies and personal protective equipment for their healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19.”

But this is not the first time that medical workers in China have been left vulnerable before.

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2002 and 2003, a significant proportion of healthcare workers in mainland China also succumbed to the virus with about 20 percent of them contracting SARS.

“If we can’t protect those who are helping us at literally the worst place possible during this battle, then what good are we?” one netizen wrote on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter after the numbers came out.

Despite reports that medical equipment suppliers have resumed work to aid the government’s fight against the disease, doctors and nurses have continued to report severe shortages of medical supplies, especially masks and hazmat suits.