Covid-19 explosion puts Panama under great stress

TODAY PANAMA – “We are on the road,” says Juan Carlos Mojica on the radio, while his ambulance companion, Yushara Fernández, steps on the accelerator in search of a new covid-19 patient, amid an explosion of cases that collapsed the health system of the country.

A patient with covid-19, a neighbor of the Cerro Viento community -on the outskirts of the Panamanian capital- received care from a paramedic on Monday, December 14, 2020. AFP

Yushara, 26, dodges as much as she can to avoid the heavy traffic on the road. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos, 24, exchanges information with the base through the vehicle radio.

“In recent days there has been an increase in cases, in care, in transfers, there is also an attrition of personnel, obviously. We spend most of the day on the street,” Yushara says.

“At first (I was) very afraid,” but you have to keep calm and a cool head “because fear makes us make mistakes,” she adds.

Panama, with 4.2 million inhabitants, has the highest number of infections from the pandemic in all of Central America, with nearly 200,000 accumulated cases and 3,382 deaths.

This Latin American nation, which reopened its borders in mid-October and began to reactivate its economic activities, is experiencing its most critical moment with more than 15,000 new infections and 163 deaths in the last week.

According to official data, there are more than 26,000 isolated people and 1,435 hospitalized for covid-19, of which 185 are in intensive care units.

Hospitals in trouble

The situation has caused the saturation of hospitals, some of which can no longer receive more patients. The government acknowledged over the weekend the “critical state of the country’s hospital capacity.”

Paramedics Juan Carlos Mojica and Yushara Hernández transferred a patient with covid-19 to Hospital Arnulfo Arias Madrid, in the capital, on Monday, December 14, 2020. AFP

For this reason, it is desperately seeking the installation of different infrastructures to attend the growing number of patients and is analyzing the hiring of foreign personnel.

Some medical associations have even asked the government to return to the total confinement measures prior to the economic reopening. Several experts point out that infections could skyrocket up to 4,000 a day due to the Christmas holidays.

“We are in a critical situation, of collapse. Things are not looking good ”, declares Domingo Moreno, coordinator of the main Panamanian medical union.

However, Einar Cruz, national head of the emergency management department of the Social Security Fund (CSS) believes that although there has been “a considerable increase” in infections there is no danger of collapse due to the “good coordination” between the rooms. emergency, hospitals and ambulances.

According to government figures, Panama has 16 doctors and 14 nurses for every 10,000 inhabitants, a figure that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers adequate to guarantee health services.

Yushara’s ambulance arrives at a house in Cerro Viento, on the outskirts of the Panamanian capital.

There they treat a 52-year-old patient with covid-19 and hypertensive. The patient is short of breath and cannot speak. After being stabilized, he asks if the oxygen tank cannot be left to avoid going to the hospital.

However, due to his condition, he transferred him to Arnulfo Arias Madrid, the largest hospital in the country, in Panama City.

“Relax, everything will be fine, soon you will be at your house,” Yushara tells him, while the patient is distracted by his cell phone.

“Our staff is giving 110% to attend to our patients,” but if the population does not comply with biosanitary measures, the situation “can get out of control,” says Brian Ávila, head of operations for the CSS pandemic.

Exhausted staff

The increase in cases due to the pandemic has ended up exhausting health personnel, who have had to double shifts of up to 16 hours, between transfers and exhausting hours of waiting in hospitals.

A paramedic from the Social Security Fund (CSS) is getting ready to start his turn in the fight to provide care for those infected with covid-19 in Panama. AFP

Sometimes, there is hardly time to change the biosecurity equipment and do the physiological needs. They have even faced “hostile scenarios, with firearms,” ​​says Juan Carlos.

They also feel frustration and helplessness when they see parties and crowds during their services without protective measures.

“People do not comply with the established sanitary measures, they take it, sometimes, as I relax or I do not know if they have already lost them like fear of the virus, but that exhausts us,” says the emergency medical technician, José Villaverde, after leaving a covid patient.

They have not yet brought the ambulance to disinfect when they receive a new request for a transfer.

Before accepting the order, José warns his fellow driver: “Let’s change (first) I’m all sweaty, cholo.”


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