"No end in sight": Portugal's hospitals on brink as COVID cases surge


A patient is carried to the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Cascais Hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Cascais, Portugal, January 27, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

CASCAIS, Portugal (Reuters) - COVID-19 patient Joao Cordeiro has beaten the virus and is about to go home, and his children also made quick recoveries from the disease. But his family's battle with an epidemic that is raging across Portugal is far from over.

Cordeiro's wife remains at the Cascais Hospital outside Lisbon, fighting for her life in the emergency unit a few floors below the room he was treated in.

"She is down there with pneumonia and everything," said the visibly tired 48-year-old, relieved to be discharged after weeks in hospital but dismayed at the prospect of leaving her behind.

"I'm afraid ... I want her to get better."

The Cordeiros are among the nearly 250,000 people infected with the coronavirus in Portugal so far this month, and the country has the world's highest seven-day average of daily cases and deaths per million.

Watching news on TV about the impact of the pandemic, Cordeiro had a simple message for his compatriots: "Be careful. This (virus) can affect anyone."

Portugal's epidemic has entered a "terrible" phase, Prime Minister Antonio Costa admitted on Wednesday, and the surge in cases has left hospitals on the brink of collapse.

Some are running out of beds, others' oxygen supplies are dwindling and, with doctors and nurses also over-stretched, military medics have been drafted in from Germany to offer help.

Like elsewhere, staff at Cascais are exhausted and sometimes struggle to stay motivated. "There is no end in sight," one nurse mumbled after removing her personal protective equipment (PPE).

That uncertainty is also taking a toll on their mental health, said the hospital's clinical chief, Nuno Côrte-Real.

"The psychological well-being is the big challenge now because everyone can handle an adverse situation if they know it will end," he said. "Not knowing when this will end is very stressful."

'CLOSE TO LIMIT'

Cascais has 16 intensive care unit beds for coronavirus patients. They are all occupied. And whenever there is a free spot, it is quickly filled.

"We hope we are approaching the peak of this wave," Côrte-Real said. "But we are very close to the hospital's capacity limit."

Across Portugal's health service, 830 ICU beds have been allocated to COVID-19 patients out of a total of 1,200. Currently 783 COVID-19 patients are in ICUs.

Large military health units in Lisbon and Porto have stepped in to help.

"We can handle it for a few weeks but if it takes too long (for the situation to improve) we won't be able to," Côrte-Real said.

Nearby, a nurse was helping a shocked visitor put on protective gear so she could visit a family member for what could be a final goodbye. But it's not all tears.

Other staff, trying to keep coronavirus patients in good spirits, could be heard laughing or telling jokes - and sending patients home, COVID-free, gives everyone a lift.

For nursing department chief Dulce Gonçalves, the process of regaining control needs to begin long before then, however. "It is not (only) in the hospital where there's a battle," she said. "It is in everyone's home."

Echoing those sentiments, hospital president Jose Bento added: "Together - hospitals, politicians, the general public - we will be able to win this fight. That's our hope."

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Ingrid Melander and John Stonestreet)

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