Pandemic Overwhelms European Medical System

(CN) – In France, teams of medics labor to place patients strapped to heavy gurneys onto a high-speed train. Italian patients gasping for life are being flown over the Alps to German hospitals. About 40 Italian doctors and medical workers have been killed by the coronavirus. In Spain, at 8 p.m. every night, thousands come to their windows and onto their balconies to clap in support of medical workers.

A month into a devastating outbreak of the respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus, Europe’s medical system is overwhelmed as tens of thousands of people need medical care to survive infections caused by the virus and its attacks on a person’s lungs.

Military trucks moving coffins of deceased people line up on the highway Thursday near Bergamo, Italy, one of the areas worst hit by the coronavirus infection. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Europe is the epicenter of the global pandemic and it is showing the world just how brutal an outbreak can be on a country’s medical system.

Thursday proved to be another grim day. Spain reported 655 more deaths, Italy 662 more victims and the United Kingdom 115 new deaths. So far, more than 15,000 people across Europe have died.

And there’s no end in sight as the virus continues to spread.

On Thursday, London was facing a “continuous tsunami” of patients, a high-ranking health official told BBC radio. Chris Hopson said London hospitals are handling an “explosion of demand” from seriously ill patients. A field hospital with 4,000 beds is under construction in London and 10 other makeshift hospitals are slated to be opened elsewhere in the U.K.

The deadly virus known as Covid-19 is a growing reality in far-off Russia too, which until this week had reported few cases.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Russians in a televised address to not work for a week and to stay home. He said workers will be paid in full. But he also said the threat would be contained quickly and said there was no reason to panic. Still, international flights are being grounded.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are going farther and closing nonessential businesses and services, cafes, shops and parks for a week.

On Wednesday, Moscow, where the most cases have been found in Russia, reported two deaths. So far, Russia has reported only three deaths linked to the virus and 840 confirmed cases. Many believe the official tally is low. A major outbreak in Russia will test the country’s already strained and ill-equipped medical system.

As the pandemic seriously tests Europe’s health system, extraordinary measures are being taken.

In Strasbourg, medics evacuated about 20 coronavirus patients on a high-speed train Thursday morning. The train was employed to relieve the Alsace region in eastern France, the country’s epicenter. More than 1,300 people in France have died. The French military has also begun evacuating patients from Alsace by aircraft. Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland are also taking in French patients.

With the hospital in Mulhouse in Alsace swamped, the French military set up an emergency field hospital. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron, donning a mask, visited the field hospital and paid tribute to the exhausted medical workers. He also promised a massive injection of investment into the medical system.

Germany is now taking patients from hard-hit Italy. Luigi Angelo, the head of operations with Italy’s Civil Protection, said at a news conference that German aircraft took two patients to Dresden and five more to other hospitals.

Pallbearers carry a coffin of a person who died of coronavirus at a cemetery in Madrid, Spain, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

In Spain, the military is now helping by setting up field hospitals, transporting medical supplies and disinfecting nursing homes.

Madrid is at the center of Spain’s crisis and its hospitals are filled with patients. Videos and photos are now emerging showing hospital corridors and emergency rooms filled with the sick, many of them on respirators. In one hospital, patients are seen waiting on the floor for free beds.

The number of doctors and nurses getting infected and even dying from the virus is alarming.

In Spain, about 6,500 medical workers have been infected, which amounts to about 14% of everyone who has tested positive there. At least three Spanish health workers have died.

In Italy, medical workers have been hit exceptionally hard. So far, Italian medical organizations say 39 medical workers have died from the virus and more than 6,200 have been infected. Pharmacists too have been infected and died, according to health officials in Italy.

To help the overstretched medical system in Italy, Russia has sent about 100 doctors, nurses and experts.

The toll on medical workers comes in other ways too.

In Spain, the El Mundo newspaper reported a story about medical staff clapping and celebrating the release of an 81-year-old woman when she was released from an intensive care unit at a hospital in Valladolid. The staff shouted: “Champion!” Then, only 36 hours later, she died. The newspaper said news of her death was initially withheld for fear of striking a blow to the morale of medical workers.

Nursing homes are getting hit hard in Spain and there are reports of mass deaths in some centers. For example, at least 10 residents died in a home in Cájar, El Pais, a Spanish newspaper reported.

Nursing home staff are at risk too. For example, in one nursing home in the town of Santo Angel in Murcia nearly all of the staff has been infected, El Pais said.

“Let’s think about the medical workers and about their sleeplessness,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said during a contentious session of parliament Wednesday in response to attacks by his political opponents who are questioning his government’s actions, in particular hesitation to impose a nationwide lockdown.

French President Emmanuel Macron wears a face mask during his visit to a military field hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, on Wednesday. (Mathieu Cugnot/Pool via AP)

There have been mistakes too. On Thursday, the Spanish government acknowledged that it had to send back to China 9,000 test kits because they were defective. Sanchez’s political opponents are critical of a decision to centralize the purchase of medical supplies for the whole country. Due to the slow delivery of tests, some regions are buying their own kits on the international market.

With a shortage of protective gear and respirators, countries are coming up with novel methods for fulfilling needs. Luxury fashion brands in France and Italy are now making protective masks for hospital workers and the University of Malaga in Andalusia is manufacturing respirators.

Health workers across Europe have complained about the state of unpreparedness and the lack of protective gear and medical equipment. European leaders are also coming under fire for years of budget cuts to medical systems, which accelerated after the 2008 financial meltdown and a debt crisis that led to years of austerity.

In Spain, the hardships and dangers medical workers face are not lost on many Spaniards. Every evening at 8 p.m., thousands of people take to their windows and balconies to clap and applaud all those toiling at the front lines, exposing themselves to the virus.

Some European countries have come under fire for hoarding supplies and not offering enough help to the hardest-hit areas, such as Italy’s northern region. For example, Germany imposed a ban on exporting medical equipment after the outbreak started, infuriating Italy. Also, several countries closed their borders to other European Union member states and that caused delays in shipments of medical supplies.

On Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged European countries to do more to help each other.

“The story from the last few weeks is partly a painful one to tell,” she said in a speech to an empty European Parliament. Almost all of the parliament’s members are now working in isolation to avoid spreading the virus.

“When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves,” she said. “When Europe really needed an all-for-one spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair-weather union, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.”

Solidarity is becoming painfully necessary as the virus hits the EU’s more impoverished members, such as Romania. Its health system is suffering from a severe shortage of medical equipment and protective gear. After hundreds of medical staff got infected, some hospitals had to be closed temporarily.

Hans Kluge, the head of the European office of the World Health Organization, said this pandemic shows that Europe needs to do more to put health care systems “at the top of the political agenda.”

“We must be aware that we are facing a new reality: This is not a sprint race but a marathon, and once the restrictive measures are lifted there could be a second or third peak of cases,” Kluge said during a call with reporters.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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