Can Spain’s hospitals cope with coronavirus?

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Can Spain’s hospitals cope with coronavirus?
Photo: AFP

At the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus is Spain’s health service and nowhere is it under the cosh more than Madrid where more than half of all national cases have been recorded.


In Madrid alone there are more than 100 coronavirus patients being treated in intensive care units in the capital’s hospitals, a figure that is rising daily.

The region has registered 1,024 cases of the new COVID-19 and seen 31 deaths while Spain as a whole had by Thursday morning seen 2,100 cases and 55 mortalities.

So can the hospitals cope? The Local rounds up the latest news on the issue:

Equipment shortages

Photo: AFP
The novel coronavirus outbreak is expected to push the Spanish healthcare system to its limits.

A particular worry is the pressure on intensive care units, which are essential for treating the sickest patients.

By the time coronavirus patients need to be admitted they are usually in a critical state and can remain that way for an average of 20 days, which means not only that units will become short of space and face staffing shortages but that there won’t be beds available for other non-coronavirus emergencies.


And Spain is already facing shortages of key equipment such as ventilators, which become “like gold” in the words of one Italian doctor at the coronavirus frontline in northern Italy.

 Madrid hospitals are preparing “intermediate care units” specifically designed to treat an influx of critical coronavirus patients for which they need extra ventilators to assist breathing.

But although extra machines have been ordered, there is a global stock shortage. Germany has already banned the export of key medical equipment and Italy has appealed to China to send over ventilators now that the number of covid-19 cases in the Asian country are on the wane.

There are numerous reports of a dearth of other equipment, including protective facemasks and uniforms at Spain’s outbreak hotspots.

“They’ve started rationing them because they noticed medical staff were changing them a lot more to avoid contagion,” revealed a health worker at a hospital in Madrid to El Confidential.

The price of protective face masks has soared from 50 cents to €7.

"Such equipment is under lock and key in the emergency room," report workers at Ramón y Cajal hospital in 20Minutos.

"We are running out of protective equipment. We can run out of ICU beds," admitted Dr. Arribas, head of infectious diseases at Madrid’s La Paz.

Overtired and understaffed

Health workers report being over worked even before understaffing became even worse with so many being quarantined themselves.

At the capital’s  Gregorio Marañón hospital alone, some 50 health workers were sent home to self isolate earlier this week amid risk of contagion. Ten of them have subsequently tested positive.

Similar situations are occuring at hospitals across Spain with health workers at high risk of contracting the virus and then spreading it around. 

Madrid health authorities have extended temporary work contracts of health professionals who are hired to work over winter and cover the flu season. While most of those contracts would end by the middle of March with the arrival of spring, they have been extended to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

Last week the Community of Madrid signed off 1,658 contracts, 707 of those are extensions of the winter plan and another 951 specific for the coronavirus crisis.

"What worries me as a medical professional is that the measures that have to be taken are not being taken in time to avoid many people becoming infected in a very short time," explained  Ángela Hernández of Madrid's Doctors union. "Because if that happens the capacities that we have in the health system will be exceeded."

Telephone lines

Even the dedicated coronavirus emergency health lines have been overwhelmed with people reporting being stuck on hold for hours.

The national emergency 112 number became so overwhelmed with queries about the coronavirus that other health emergency calls couldn't get through so dedicated regional services phone services have been in place since the beginning of the week. 


The advice for those who think they may have the coronavirus is to stay at home, DO NOT go to the hospital or healh clinic and contact your regional health coronavirus service on one of the numbers above where you will be given instructions on how to proceed. 

Army on standby

Spain's ministry of defence has drawn up plans for the army to step in and help in Spain's hardest hit hospitals when the need arises. 

Specialist units are posied to create field hospitals attached to hospitals in the hotspots were the outbreak is at its worst, currently in Madrid, the Basque Country and La Rioja. 

In the same way as military units carry out humanitarian aid during international disasters, plans are in place for emergency measures to be introduced in Spain. 

The army has also carried out an inventory of all its medical supplies so that they can be made available if there is a shortage in national health service stocks.

Warning from a Spanish doctor in Italy

A Spanish doctor who has  been working in a hospital in Milan has gone public to urge his home country to take the coronavirus seriously and not wait to take proper action. 

"What happened in Italy 18 days ago is now happening in Spain," the doctor who is only identified by his first name Luis, said in a video.

"They told us that it was like the flu and although some people were affected a little more nothing happened ... but although it is true and 80 percent experience it like a flu and nothing much happens. The problem is that it is very contagious. all of a sudden and the hospitals are saturated because there are many people admitted, and not with a runny nose, admitted into the ICU "
"The Italian National Health System is one of the strongest and they cannot cope, they are at the point of collapse, the nurses and doctors are not coping, the ICU is broken, there are no more ventilators. If I went out now and got on my motorcycle and crashed and they have to take me to the hospital, there is nobody to take care of me, the system has collapsed," he warned.


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