Manila – Angelo Barrera’s father struggled to breathe from COVID-19 as he was driven to the Philippine capital in search of a hospital bed. After five hours, he put himself on a waiting list, but died before he could enter.
More contagious variants of the coronavirus have been blamed for a record spike in infections in metro Manila, which has overloaded hospitals and locked the national capital region into lockdown.
Long lines in the emergency room have forced people to move from one health facility to another in search of treatment, in a situation described by one hospital official as a “nightmare”.
“They physically went to eight hospitals – he was at full capacity everywhere,” said Barrera, who called 20 more medical centers during his father’s ordeal last month.
The 61-year-old pastor, who had no pre-existing conditions, suddenly collapsed after suffering mild symptoms of the illness for about 10 days.
“The admission was full, the ER was full and even the ER waiting list was full. Some hospitals had told us they had 40 patients waiting to enter the emergency room, ”Barrera said.
Finally, around 4 a.m., a large private hospital added him to its waiting list for the intensive care unit.
He was on a stretcher and hooked up to an oxygen tank in the patient drop-off area outside the crowded emergency room when he died, said Barrera, who declined to name his father.
“Even though we know the ICU won’t miraculously save him, it was still our best shot.
A COVID-19 referral hotline set up during the pandemic to direct patients to the appropriate hospital has been overwhelmed, unable to handle the hundreds of calls per day to the service.
Many have taken to social media to gather information on which facilities are still accepting patients – and to voice their frustration at the hospital’s bottlenecks.
“We called 48 hospitals in Metro Manila for a friend; her oxygen is at 75%, ”tweeted Laurel Flores Fantauzzo on March 31.
“All are full. Many will not add to waiting lists. I would like there to be field hospitals. Medical ships. Stadia transformed. We will pay everything to save it, but the infrastructure does not exist. Help me please.”
In a bid to slow the spread of the virus and ease the burden on hospitals, authorities last month ordered more than 24 million people in the capital and four neighboring provinces to stay at home unless they are are essential workers.
A week after the lockdown was imposed, 70-80% of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were full, while intensive care unit beds were “almost 100%” occupied in the major part of the capital, said Under Secretary of Health Maria Vergeire.
“It’s a dire situation – it’s a hospital manager’s worst nightmare that’s actually happening,” said Jaime Almora, president of the Philippine Hospital Association.
Leland Ustare, an anesthesiologist at St Luke’s Medical Center, said some patients were spending days in the emergency room waiting for an intensive care bed.
“This period is even worse than last year,” Ustare said, referring to the first months of the pandemic.
“The numbers are really worse.”
The government is distributing modular tents to ailing hospitals and redeploying health workers from areas with low transmission rates of the virus.
Isolation facilities have been expanded to include schools and hotel rooms for mild cases in a bid to ease the burden and prevent the virus from spreading into overcrowded households.
The World Health Organization has warned that hospitals are approaching a “red line” where demand exceeds health care capacity.
“It is very, very important to avoid crossing that red line,” said Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.
“ Dark months to come ”
Almora said the problem in hospitals was the lack of health workers, not beds.
“The hospitals have the capacity, they have the beds, but they cannot expand their capacity because of the manpower problem,” he said.
Some nurses quit for fear of catching the virus or went abroad to work in hospitals where the risks were the same but the wages were higher, he said.
Government insurance restrictions on co-payments also discouraged small facilities from accepting COVID-19 patients, Almora added.
President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government has come under fire for handling the pandemic and rolling out vaccines, warned last week of “dark months” ahead.
The number of cases in the country of more than 828,000 people – the second highest in Southeast Asia – is expected to exceed one million by the end of April.
Amid growing panic, some lawmakers and doctors are pushing for the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin – touted by some on social media as a COVID-19 “miracle cure” – to be approved for widespread use.
The WHO says ivermectin should only be used as a COVID-19 treatment in clinical trials, citing “inconclusive” evidence.
Unemployed hotelier Rodell Nazario said his 46-year-old wife died last month after waiting two days at home for hospitalization.
As her condition worsened, he piled her into a cab, but she was dead by the time they got to the emergency room.
“The cases would not have exploded if they (the government) had done the right thing,” Nazario said.
“They locked it down but then they let people go out again.”
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