Colombian cities brace for more COVID infections after protests

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota, Colombia, May 9, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's three largest cities are bracing for an extended third peak in coronavirus cases and over-stretched intensive care units after nearly two weeks of anti-government protests, local authorities said.

Demonstrations fueled by outrage at a now-canceled tax plan began on April 28. Protesters' demands have expanded to include a basic income, an end to police violence and the withdrawal of a long-debated health reform.

Marches look set to continue for the foreseeable future, with protest leaders and the government at odds despite an initial meeting to discuss the demands.

Capital Bogota is confronting a "hospital collapse," Mayor Claudia Lopez said in a press conference on Monday, and will not see infections drop this week as previously predicted.

"The pact of care that has safeguarded us from contagion for 16 months is what was broken in Colombia two weeks ago," Lopez said. "Every day it is broken, we are exposed to a risk of mass death. To be at 96% ICU occupation is to be on the brink of hospital collapse."

A decrease in infections will not come until the end of May, Lopez said, adding protests make quarantine restrictions nearly unenforceable, though she extended a curfew and restriction on alcohol sales.

Medellin, whose ICUs have been at or near full-capacity for weeks, is preparing for a possible crisis, health secretary Andree Uribe told Reuters in a video.

"We know there will be an increase in cases, we're on alert, we are carrying out actions for early identification, like testing everyone who participated in the marches," she said.

In Cali - a protest focal point - demonstrations are likely to extend a current peak, health secretary Miyerlandi Torres said.

"We're worried about marchers who don't comply with any of the self-protection protocols like physical distancing and the use of face masks," she said. "And with the presence of strains like the British one, which are highly contagious, it's indicated the figures won't fall in the short term."

Cali's ICUs are about 95% occupied, according to local government figures.

(Reporting by Carlos Vargas,; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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