Beirut, Lebanon – “I am very worried about what we will see in the next few weeks”, a 33-year-old intensive care doctor, during a short break from a 24-hour shift in the intensive care unit (ICU ) from a Beirut hospital, told me.
The doctor, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, said intensive care units at two hospitals he worked in between Beirut and the eastern Bekaa Valley in Lebanon had become full over the past week.
Across the country, the number of new cases has soared after authorities significantly eased restrictions on going out during the holiday season.
Records have been broken every day for the past four days, dropping from 3,620 new cases on Tuesday to 5,440 on Friday – the day after a new 25-day lockdown was imposed with a nighttime curfew.
Although the numbers vary, the capacity of intensive care units across the country is said to be around 550 beds. Five hundred and twenty-five, or more than 90%, were full on Friday, according to the Ministry of Health.
This meant that COVID-19 patients whose life is in immediate danger had to stay in the emergency room rather than being transferred to the ICU.
“They’re not getting optimal care,” the doctor said.
“Emergency rooms are overcrowded and overwhelmed and cannot accommodate more patients. We are not yet at the stage where we have to make those hard choices of triage patients [deciding who gets care based on their chances of survival], but it becomes difficult.
The survival prospects of many depend on whether an intensive care bed becomes free – sometimes by someone who gets better, but often after someone dies.
Latest Spring [we don’t use seasons to define time, could we put a month to this instead, please?], during a huge COVID-19 outbreak in the Italian region of Lombardy, health workers had to make the difficult decision not to treat patients over the age of 75 or 80, preferring instead to provide care for younger patients with a better chance of survival.
It’s something like that dreaded “Italian scenario” that health workers fear on the front lines of Lebanon’s fight against COVID.
“I think we’re going to have to make decisions like in Italy, if not next week or the week after, then in a month. This means that the number of deaths will increase, ”a 35-year-old second ICU doctor told Al Jazeera, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The health care system is weak, public servants are useless and a lot of people don’t seem to care. The situation is miserable and I’m afraid of what’s going to happen, but I’m honestly at the point where I’m just saying, “whatever happens, happens”. “
Health Minister Hamad Hasan could not be reached for comment, nor an adviser.
The ministry has asked private hospitals to increase their capacity of COVID-ready beds, and hospitals say they have complied to the extent possible given the effects of the country’s unprecedented economic crisis.
“Even if hospitals increase their bed capacity, they cannot keep up with the surge in the number of COVIDs,” Firas Abiad, the head of Lebanon’s main COVID control hospital, warned in a tweet.
“A stricter approach is now necessary. If we wait until the hospital beds are full, it will be too late. Judging by the noticeable laxity on the street, things are not going well.
‘There is no strategy’
Many in Lebanon are drawing a direct line between the peak of cases and the government’s decision to significantly ease a nighttime curfew on Christmas and New Years – allowing hundreds to gather inside for concerts and performances. other events.
At least two singers who have held busy New Years Eve events have since announced they have tested positive.
“It was a decision linked to commercial interests,” Assem Araji, head of the Lebanese parliamentary health committee, told Al Jazeera, denouncing the myopia of this decision.
Araji’s committee also criticized the new lockdown for exceptions that allow flower shops, factories and other non-essential businesses to remain open.
“They might as well have made a list of what is not excepted, virtually everything other than clothing stores is open,” he said.
At the same time, the Home Office ordered that only cars with odd number plates drive on certain days, and those with even number plates on others – despite the objection of the Minister of Health and the health committee, who say the regulations actually increase the chances of exposure.
“It forces people to use public transport or get in the car with their neighbor,” Araji said.
“There is no strategy and [officials] contradict each other. “
Wait for vaccines
Araji said the government was set to sign a deal with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals for some two million doses of the vaccine after the final decision was delayed over a clause that protected the US-based company from any harm. liability for potential side effects.
He said the first batch of the vaccine was promised for mid-February. At the same time, he said Lebanon is seeking some 1.5 million doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which aims to ensure the distribution of vaccines in developing countries.
Since two doses are each needed for the vaccines to be purchased, they will cover 1.75 million Lebanese – less than a third of the six million people in the country which includes at least one million refugees.
Araji said it would likely take until the end of 2021 to deliver all of those doses, adding that privately purchased and administered vaccines would also be available soon.
Meanwhile, the 33-year-old ICU doctor said medical professionals were trying to hold on until Lebanon started vaccinations – but expressed concern over how long it will take to the resulting immunity to reduce the number of cases.
“There is frustration and there is a lot of pressure on us,” he said, “to always do the right thing, to find places to treat these patients, to deal with their families and misconceptions and misinformation, and also seeing our colleagues become sick and tired. “