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Peru’s intensive care units at capacity as virus cases surge

January 11, 2021 GMT
Nurses transport a patient amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the entrance of Alberto Sabogal Hospital in Callao, Peru, Monday, Jan 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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Nurses transport a patient amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the entrance of Alberto Sabogal Hospital in Callao, Peru, Monday, Jan 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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Nurses transport a patient amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the entrance of Alberto Sabogal Hospital in Callao, Peru, Monday, Jan 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Covered in protective gear from head to toe, Dr. Julio Rodríguez worries about what he is seeing as he walks around the maxed-out intensive care unit of a hospital in the capital of Peru, which like other countries in Latin America is experiencing a new wave of coronavirus cases.

These days, 20 patients are vying to get a bed in the unit where the struggle between life and death is fought every moment. The dire situation has pushed Peruvians to beg for a bed on social media as the daily rise in newly confirmed coronavirus cases has reached 1,500.

“Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to take care of them,” Rodriguez said Monday, wearing two masks and two pairs of gloves. A month ago, only five patients were waiting for an ICU bed at the Alberto Sabogal hospital.

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The shortage of beds is the result of the increasing number of cases and the fact that it may take a COVID-19 patient up to a month to leave the unit — alive or dead.

Hospitals in Peru’s north, south and central regions have no beds left in their ICUs. In Lima, only six intensive care beds are left, according to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Decades of underinvestment in public health measures have left Peru as one of the countries in South America with the fewest intensive care beds. The entire country, which has a population around 32 million, has only 1,656 ICU beds. That is less than the 1,800-plus beds available in Bogota, a city of 7.4 million people that is the capital of neighboring Colombia, according to official data.

Peru has recorded more than 38,200 deaths related to COVID-19 and more than a million cases of coronavirus infections since the pandemic reached the country in mid-March.

On Monday, Rodríguez checked on his patients, all sedated. Nurses recorded vital signs on a clipboard, and the data was then entered into a computer. Some patients were related, such as a mother and son who were infected at the young man’s wedding.

The sounds of the monitors that measure oxygen saturation and other vital signs of the 30 patients in the intensive care unit accompany the doctors, nurses and health technicians every shift. All their patients are intubated.

Experts say the increase in cases was driven by the large protests in November that generated political chaos in Peru — and led to the naming of three presidents in a week — as well as holiday gatherings.

Doctors, nurses and technicians are working under intense pressure, balancing the risk of getting infected, stress and sleep deprivation.

“The patients keep increasing and they don’t stop,” Rodríguez said.