'Overwhelming' COVID second wave floods Swiss hospitals

FILE PHOTO: A hospital staffer treats a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease in the acute care unit of the University Hospital (HUG) as Switzerland enters a second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, October 27, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - Swiss hospitals are scrambling to cope with a surge in new COVID-19 patients, bringing back retired staff to replace sick frontline workers and closing other wards as officials warn they could reach breaking point in about 10 days.

Case numbers in Switzerland have risen to record levels this month, with infection rates far exceeding those in neighbours Germany and Italy.

The government is expected to announce new measures on Wednesday but has been criticised by medics and scientists for being too reluctant to impose strict nationwide rules.

At Geneva's University Hospital (HUG), in one of the worst-hit cantons, cases have increased more than six-fold in three weeks to 350 patients.

"Everyone expected a second wave, but no one to my knowledge expected it to be so wild and so severe," director Bertrand Levrat told Reuters.

"Today, this wave is going to be probably bigger, maybe much bigger than the first wave," he said, describing a strained situation with exhausted medics and more than 400 COVID infections among staff.

To cope, his facility is cutting elective surgeries, moving patients to private clinics and has called on retired workers even though they would be in the age bracket more vulnerable to the virus.

Nationally, about a third of intensive care units remain available but will be filled in the next ten days if the current infection rate persists, government delegate for the Coordinated Medical Services Andreas Stettbacher said on Tuesday.

Similar warnings were issued earlier this year during the first outbreak, but then hospitals, propped up by army reservists, largely coped and many had spare capacity.

The situation is different this time around, doctors say.

Marie Assouline Reinmann, a doctor at HUG, is concerned that complacency and scepticism about restrictions could lead to a spike in the number of infections.

"I fear that people take the situation less seriously and that it gets worse and worse here at the hospital," she said.

"I would like people to realize that this second wave is here and it is already overwhelming us."

Confirmed cases in Switzerland and neighbouring Liechtenstein have surpassed 127,000, with a death toll above 1,900.

(Additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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