The fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Spain is starting to have an effect on hospital admissions. With the curve of infections on the rise since the end of June, and the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants now at 500.75 – the highest figure since February – the number of Covid-19 patients has nearly doubled in the space of just two weeks: 4,705 people infected with the virus are currently hospitalized in Spain, according to the latest Health Ministry report, released on Thursday. The report also notified 27,688 new infections and added 41 victims to the overall death toll.
The pressure on the healthcare system is still far from that seen in previous waves – at the end of January, there were more than 30,700 Covid-19 patients. But some hospitals in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands have already had to reschedule procedures related to other illnesses and to suspend hospital visits given the spike in new cases.
Another issue is that this latest wave is taking place during the summer, when there are staff shortages due to vacations and insufficient personnel to cover the growing demand for treatment.
Given that the vast majority of infections are being registered among young people, who usually experience mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and do not require hospitalization, it is the primary healthcare system that is suffering the most during this fifth wave.
Neither the experts consulted by EL PAÍS nor the central government expect this overload to be transferred to the hospitals as happened during other waves, overwhelming intensive care units (ICUs) once more. The majority of the vulnerable sectors of Spain’s population are now protected against the severe effects of Covid-19 thanks to the vaccination campaign. But this does not mean that hospitals will be completely free of the effect of the rise in cases.
We are very worried about the situation in primary healthcare because the system was already in a very precarious situationGuadalupe Fontán, General Nursing Council
While the occupation of hospital beds by Covid-19 patients has grown in the last two weeks, the rates vary from region to region, and the average across the country is still only at 4% of available beds. That’s compared to the end of January, when the figure was 24%. In Asturias and the Canary Islands, for example, admissions have grown 91% and 76%, respectively. There are 92 Covid-19 patients in the former region, and 226 in the latter.
In Castilla y León, the hospitals have not yet taken exceptional measures in hospitals in order to deal with the rise in patients, but admissions have risen 186% in 15 days, to a total of 260 by Thursday. In Cantabria, the number has nearly tripled to 58, and in Extremadura, Galicia and Murcia, patient numbers have doubled to 32, 103 and 42, respectively.
In the Basque Country, meanwhile, numbers are relatively stable, with 190 patients, and in Madrid the figure has grown just 27% to 536 patients.
In Catalonia, the region with the highest incidence of the virus – 1,100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days – and with the greatest pressure on hospitals, the number of patients has tripled and the occupation level is nearly double the Spanish average. The pressure on normal beds and ICUs – there are 296 critical Covid-19 patients, who are occupying nearly 25% of ICU beds – is such that some Barcelona hospitals have had to reprogram non-critical procedures to cope with the increase in patients.
Vall d’Hebron, the biggest hospital in Catalonia, is also restricting visits to avoid the risks of coronavirus transmission, and has reopened the area in the Garbi building that was being used during the third wave to treat Covid-19 patients.
In the Valencia region, where admissions have grown 182% and there are more than 400 coronavirus patients, the pressure on hospitals is growing, and in some cases, surgery schedules have had to be reorganized in order to deal with urgent demand.
The exhaustion of healthcare staff after so many waves of the virus is taking its toll on personnel, who have been complaining about the lack of resources since the outset of the pandemic. “We are very tired,” explains Guadalupe Fontán, a nurse from the General Nursing Council who is an expert in healthcare management. “They are already organizing [Covid-19] circuits in hospitals, the wards that need to be opened or closed… everything is very well organized and well oiled. But we only have the human resources we have and that is being noticed. There aren’t sufficient numbers of staff to cover everything and there are a lot of difficulties to find professionals.”
With the exception of Catalonia, however, the pressure of this fifth wave is not yet being felt in the ICUs on average. There are currently 838 Covid-19 patients in critical condition across Spain, occupying 9% of the ICU beds across the country. At the start of January, occupation was as high as 45%, with 4,800 patients in the ICU.
Fontán warns, however, that this pressure on the healthcare system and hospitals will have an effect on citizens. “We are very worried about the situation in primary healthcare because the system was already in a very precarious situation. People need to go for tests, consultations, have their doubts cleared up. The situation in the hospitals is also worrying, although they have been through this several times before and it’s like Groundhog Day.” She warns that “every time there is a spike, Covid takes priority and everything else has to wait. There are patients who are waiting for an operation or a test and everything is being dragged out. This is happening right now in Catalonia, but in other regions this could happen in two weeks. We are always behind the virus.”
English version by Simon Hunter.