Madrid's hospitals show Covid-19 pandemic's stranglehold on Europe

Hospitals in Madrid are filling up with seriously ill Covid-19 patients again. PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - Hospitals in Madrid are filling up with seriously ill Covid-19 patients again, raising the spectre of a healthcare collapse similar to the grim scenes southern Europe experienced in spring.

The number of intensive-care beds with coronavirus patients in the Spanish capital region jumped to 39 per cent on Thursday (Sept 24) from 25 per cent at the end of last week, according to official data.

But Professor Miguel Hernan, a Harvard University epidemiologist who has advised the Spanish government, said the way Spain counts capacity understates the strain and ICU beds in Madrid actually are almost full.

"We are once again facing a serious health emergency," Prof Hernan said on Twitter. "ICUs were our last line of defence."

It's the latest sign of crisis as many parts of Europe, including France and the UK, combat a post-summer pandemic surge.

Prof Hernan said Spain needs another lockdown and the Madrid regional government may unveil further restrictions on Friday.

"Without adequate capacity to diagnose, tracers or supervision of isolation and quarantine, the last hope was that hospitals wouldn't be saturated," said Prof Hernan, who advised the government on lifting one of the strictest national lockdowns in the world in late June.

A renewed lockdown could be shorter than the first one and less severe, because now "the curve is flatter", he said.

Daily new cases in Spain declined to 3,471 on Thursday, almost 700 fewer than the previous day.

While elevated compared with early summer, those levels compare with more than 8,000 daily reported infections in April.

Another 500 patients died of Covid-19 over the past week, raising the toll to 31,118, according to Health Department data.

The discrepancy between the official numbers and Prof Hernan's estimate of ICU capacity is due to the fact that the official data counts all beds that can be connected to ventilators, according to the epidemiologist. In normal, non-pandemic times, around 70 per cent to 75 per cent of actual ICU beds are occupied, he said.

While Spain's daily cases are below spring levels, they have worsened progressively since August.

Madrid has already been clamping down, ordering restrictions last Friday for 37 areas, including Madrid neighbourhoods and towns in the metropolitan area, that allow people to leave only for essential reasons such as work or study.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and regional Madrid President Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a fierce Sanchez critic, said this week they'll form a joint task force to respond to the crisis.

Ms Diaz Ayuso's deputy, Mr Ignacio Aguado, pleaded with the central government to send in the army to help with logistics.

Spain had one of the world's harshest lockdowns between March and April, when hundreds died daily.

When sweeping restrictions ended in late June, the country's 17 regions regained full control of their health systems from the central government.

Spain's decentralised health system has complicated the fight against the virus, as regional authorities can set their own policies and the central government failed to align them.

Many regions never enacted recommendations made early in the pandemic by government advisers, such as increasing the number of tracers and ICU beds.

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