Battered by 1st Wave, Madrid Hospitals Stretched by 2nd

A patient with COVID-19 lies in a bed at one of the intensive care units (ICU) at the University Hospital of Torrejon. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

With speed and determination, nurses, doctors and caretakers move in and out of glassed rooms with beds hooked up to tubes, cables and monitors. The cadence of beeps serves as a soundtrack to their workday, underpinned by a constant chatter of voices at half pitch and the snapping of rubber gloves as they’re removed by staff ending their shifts.

It’s another day at the intensive care ward at the Torrejón de Ardoz University Hospital, on the outskirts of the European capital that has so far seen the worst of the second wave of the pandemic.

Hospitals and their workers have been stretched to their limits again in Madrid, where the surging number of COVID-19 patients in September forced an expansion of critical care beds into gymnasiums and surgery rooms. But as the number of incoming patients started to ease last week, health professionals are dismayed at what they see as official acceptance of a situation that is far from normal.

“It can’t be that we fall into a dynamic of a virus wave followed by a lockdown, and then the next wave in winter and lockdown again in winter,” said Carlos Velayos, an intensivist who has seen a slight decrease in new patients with coronavirus-related symptoms arriving at his Fuenlabrada hospital, also in suburban Madrid.

As many professionals are still coming to terms with the emotional impact of the first wave, they are now struggling to understand why Spain has not prepared better for new outbreaks of a virus that has left more than 825,000 infected in the country and at least 32,000 deaths.

Treatment has improved, although the time that COVID-19 patients spend under intensive care can still stretch for weeks or even months, taking up desperately-needed hospital resources, said Dr. María José García Navarro, medical director of the Torrejón de Ardoz University Hospital, where 49 patients are now being treated, 35 in normal beds and 14 in ICUs.

With more experience, García Navarro and her team have been able to fine-tune the timings of when to apply medication and treatments. They have learned, for example, that the sooner patients with respiratory problems are sent into intensive care treatment, the more chances they have of surviving.

Although official statistics in Spain show that the speed of new confirmed infections is waning —the two-week infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants has come down from the second-wave peak of 294 cases on Sept. 29 to 273 on Tuesday— officials and experts warn against complacency.

Nationally, hospital admissions have kept increasing, slowly but steadily. According to the latest available official data, over 9% of normal beds and more than 17% of intensive care unit beds are devoted to treating COVID-19 patients at the national level, although the situation is far worse in the most affected areas.

In Madrid, officials say that over 40’% of the region’s ICU capacity is now being used to treat COVID-19, but health workers pooling data from all the region strongly dispute that. With more than 500 gravely-ill patients as of Tuesday, they say they are working at 30% over the normal ICU capacity in public facilities.