'We are collapsing': Coronavirus pummels medics in Spain, Italy
MADRID — By the time Patricia Núñez’s cough started, she was already familiar with the dreaded dry hacking sound tormenting patients who had for weeks been filling the Madrid emergency ward where she works.
“We were fed up of hearing it at the hospital, so it was just a matter of time before I would contract it,” said Núñez, a 32-year-old nurse who tested positive for the new coronavirus about a week ago.
Speaking via video call from her home, Núñez said she is eager to recover, so she can relieve overworked colleagues dealing with a rising wave of patients and dwindling numbers of healthy nurses and doctors.
“The worst thing is that you need to stay at home, worried about infecting relatives, while knowing that you are dearly needed at work,” she told The Associated Press.
The coronavirus is waging a war of attrition against health care workers throughout the world, but nowhere is it winning more battles at the moment than in Italy and in Spain, where protective equipment and tests have been in severely short supply for weeks.
Spain’s universal health care system is a source of national pride and often hailed as a reason for its citizens’ legendary longevity, but the outbreak is exposing its shortcomings, some of which are the result of years of budget cuts.
The country’s hospitals are groaning under the weight of the pandemic: Video and photos from two hospitals in the Spanish capital showed patients, many hooked up to oxygen tanks, crowding corridors and emergency rooms. At the 12 de Octubre University Hospital, patients could be seen on the floor as they waited for a bed in recent days. The hospital says the patients have since been accommodated elsewhere.
On Wednesday, the number of medical personnel infected was nearly 6,500 nationally, health authorities said, representing 13.6% of the country's 47,600 total cases and about 1% of the health system's workforce. At least three health care workers have died.
“We are collapsing. We need more workers,” said Lidia Perera, a nurse who works with Núñez at Madrid’s Hospital de la Paz, which has 1,000 beds.
This week, 11 of the hospital’s 14 floors are devoted to caring for those suffering from COVID-19, and there is still not enough room: The patients with less serious cases of the disease are being put in the hospital’s gym or in a large tent outside.
“If you had told me three months ago that I would be working in these conditions in Spain, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Perera said, adding that staff at La Paz are only being tested for the virus if they have symptoms. “If they did (regular testing), they might end up without any workers.”
Widespread infections among health workers reflect the universal difficulty of stemming the spread of the pandemic. But sick health workers do double damage: They add to the toll while also hampering the ability to respond to the crisis. On top of that, they raise the specter of hospitals becoming breeding grounds of infection.
Spain's experience has been reflected elsewhere.
The World Health Organization's director-general this week called reports of large number of infections among health workers “alarming.”
"Even if we do everything else right, if we don’t prioritize protecting health workers, many people will die because the health worker who could have saved their lives is sick,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists.