LIMA (Reuters) – Peru’s hospitals are straining to deal with a rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 infections, with bodies being kept in hallways, masks being repeatedly reused, and protests breaking out amongst medical workers concerned over their safety.
Peru has the second highest number of cases in South America after Brazil, despite a tough lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.
Confirmed numbers have risen sharply in recent days, passing 17,000 on Tuesday, double the figure from just one week ago. Almost 500 people have died.
“We as a hospital have a capacity for only six bodies,” Deisy Aguirre, leader of the nurses union at the Maria Auxiliadora hospital in Lima, told Reuters outside the hospital on Monday.
“Daily we have been seeing 13 to 16 bodies crowded on the first floor.”
The health ministry says it expects patient numbers to peak within days or in the following week.
On Monday, dozens of health workers protested in front of the Maria Auxiliadora hospital, holding banners decrying a lack of protective equipment such as masks.
A doctor at the protest who declined to give his name provided video showing at least four dead bodies covered in white or black covers in a hospital corridor.
Susana Oshiro, the hospital’s director, told Reuters that at some point the number of dead had exceeded the capacity of the hospital as there was only space for six bodies in the mortuary.
“We have now contracted a freezer, a refrigerated container to store the bodies while they come to collect them for cremation,” she said. The 100-body freezer has been in operation since Monday, she added.
Even the cremation of remains has become an issue, with Lima’s six crematoriums already exceeding capacity.
Edgar González, head of Lima’s Santa Rosa crematorium, told Reuters by telephone that before the pandemic they cremated 10 bodies a day and now they are cremating up to 30.
Peru reported its first case of coronavirus on March 6 and it took 25 days to add 1,000 infections. Fourteen days later it reached 10,000 cases, official data show.
The government has also been gradually increasing the amount of tests, which totaled over 155,000 as of Tuesday, one of the highest levels in the region.
In Latin America, only Brazil has more confirmed cases, with over 40,000. Chile is third, with over 10,000.
Rosmini Ayquipa, another nurse from the María Auxiliadora hospital, told Reuters workers had had to wear the same masks for several days due to a shortage.
“We have to use three masks throughout the month, so we re-use and re-use it and what has happened? Where I work, colleagues have caught the disease,” she said.
Oshiro, the hospital director, said the complaint related to N95 type masks, which she said everyone wanted to use but which were only given to personnel involved in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Everyone else has surgical masks, she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says limited re-use of masks is generally acceptable, though not all types of masks can be reused and they should be discarded when “soiled, damaged, or hard to breathe through.”
Reuters could not confirm how many workers had become sick at the María Auxiliadora hospital.
However, Ciro Maguiña, vice dean of the Peruvian Medical College, said 237 doctors nationwide had been infected to date, with nine in intensive care using mechanical respirators. One doctor had died. Those numbers do not include nurses or other health workers.
President Martín Vizcarra has acknowledged that the country’s hospitals are already close to capacity. He has taken steps to increase intensive care units and the number of hospital beds.
“In the next few days we are going to have an increase in the capacity of care with ventilators arriving,” he said in a news conference on Monday.
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