CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Hospitals in the capital of Venezuela’s main oil-producing state are filled with coronavirus patients and dozens of health workers have been infected, witnesses said this week in early reports of the pandemic flooding the country’s weakened health care system.
Health experts have long feared the impact of COVID-19 on Venezuela, where hospitals have lapsed and drug and essential supplies are in short supply after years of economic and political crisis.
Until now, Venezuela seemed to avoid major outbreaks, even though other South American countries are seeing thousands of new cases every day. Observers have partly attributed the isolation to its protection against widespread infection.
This week, opposition figures and health workers in the city of Maracaibo, the capital of the state of Zulia, reported that an outbreak that started in May has filled the city’s hospitals and infected dozens of doctors and nurses. Officials have set up quarantine centers for asymptomatic patients in about 20 hotels.
According to official figures, as of Friday, Venezuela had 4,525 confirmed cases and 39 deaths, although the actual number appears to be significantly greater. President Nicolás Maduro has taken further steps to limit the spread of the disease in the state of Zulia, the capital of Caracas and eight other states.
The outbreak in Maracaibo, the country’s second most important city, appears to have started in Las Pulgas, a market that normally draws around 20,000 people a day.
The market was closed and the official number of cases in the city of 3 million stands at 600, with the actual number apparently much higher.
Once a state-of-the-art complex, Maracaibo University Hospital suffers daily water shortages and air-conditioning failures, and rats, cockroaches, cats and dogs are all regularly found in the hospital complex.
“This is a zoo,” a doctor told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official retaliation. Other medical workers also spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from the state.
University Hospital is closed to all patients except those with COVID-19, yet “the wards are bursting,” said another doctor.
In two other hospitals, the Chiquinquirá and Adolfo Pons, beds for virus patients are set up in outpatient examination rooms, a nurse said.
Dr. Surgeon and opposition legislator William Barrientos said 20 small and medium-sized hotels in Maracaibo are being used as quarantine centers for suspected virus patients.
Barrientos said more than 40 doctors have the virus, adding to an already-serious staffing problem due to a lack of gasoline, public transportation and personal protective equipment, all of which contributed to absenteeism.
Maracaibo Military Hospital said a 46-year-old nurse had died. Health professionals told AP she was infected with a virus patient.
Health experts and human rights organizations have been called for more international aid for the Venezuelan health system because of the virus. A fall in government oil prices and mismanagement have led to severe recession and hyperinflation, with nearly a third of the population struggling to feed themselves.
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