Portugal's COVID-19 cases hit record, health service pushed to limit

FILE PHOTO: An ambulance carrying a COVID-19 patient is seen outside Santa Maria Hospital, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Lisbon, Portugal, January 18, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

LISBON (Reuters) - Daily coronavirus cases in Portugal rose 40% on Wednesday from the day before to a record 14,647, with the national health system (SNS) on the verge of collapse and the government pondering tougher lockdown measures to tackle the surge.

"The situation is serious and the government will not fail to do everything to protect the Portuguese," Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters. "We have the SNS at its extreme limit."

The European Union country of 10 million people, where authorities implemented a 15-day lockdown last week to fight the spread of the virus, also hit a record of 219 new deaths on Wednesday from 218 the day before, health authority DGS said.

Around 45% of new cases, which brought the total of infections to 581,605, were in the Lisbon region, where hospitals are running out of beds for coronavirus patients.

Currently 681 coronavirus patients are in intensive care units (ICUs), above the 672 maximum allocation of ICU beds out of a total of just over 1,000 available in the SNS.

Portugal has already nearly doubled the number of ICU beds since the start of the pandemic, when it had just 528 critical care beds and Europe's lowest ratio per 100,000 inhabitants.

Temido said the government had struck at least 57 agreements with private health bodies to use 800 additional ICU beds for coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients.

"We want to use all existing capacity now because tomorrow may be too late," she said.

João Gouveia, head of a Portuguese association of intensive care workers, said the situation was "not as catastrophic as it was in Italy and Spain but we are close to it".

"Right now we still have a health system that can expand," he said, citing makeshift hospitals as examples. "But, in the case of ICUs, it is very limited due to a lack in human resources."

Under the new lockdown imposed on Friday, all non-essential services shut and people were urged to stay home. But the government decided to keep schools open despite heavy criticism.

Government ministers are expected to meet health experts on Wednesday evening to evaluate the situation and a potential closure of schools, according to news agency Lusa.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves, Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)

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