Virus Takes Root in Venezuela Oil Town Already in Collapse

Blood stains on the walls and floors. Cockroaches and rats in hallways. And several dozen Covid-19 patients per ward, but only two nurses and one bathroom.

Ever since the coronavirus started coursing through Latin America in March, health experts worried what would happen if the pandemic took root in embattled Venezuela. In the hot and humid coastal city of Maracaibo, that day has arrived.

Interviews with a half-dozen nurses, doctors and public officials in the capital city of Zulia state paint a disturbing picture of a hospital already overwhelmed in the first stages of an outbreak. What’s more, Maracaibo’s trials offer an ominous glimpse at the fate of health centers throughout the nation. On a continent vastly unprepared to confront the pandemic, nowhere was worse off heading into the crisis than Venezuela, a former oil powerhouse that’s now running out of fuel and basic supplies after seven years of economic collapse.

At Maracaibo’s University Hospital in Western Venezuela, over 100 coronavirus patients are awaiting care, according to health workers there, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. There are only eight ICU beds -- although malfunctioning ventilators regularly take one or two spots out of rotation.

Medical staff described how patients -- some of them lying on dirty floors -- wait two or three days for care. Some collapse before a stretcher becomes available. The health workers talk of x-ray machines that are broken, frequent power outages and bathrooms without running water. One hospital physician said they are seeing people with coronavirus symptoms die each day without ever getting a diagnosis. More are dying at home -- many don’t even bother trying to see a doctor now.

Virus Takes Root in Venezuela Oil Town Already in Collapse

Most of Maracaibo’s dead never make it into the nation’s official tally because tests have to be shipped 700 kilometers (435 miles) to Caracas for processing, and results can take anywhere from 15 days to a month, the medical workers said.

The situation threatens to “quickly get out of hand because of the fragility of the public health system,” Enrique Lopez-Loyo, a pathologist and member of the National Medicine Academy who serves on the National Assembly’s coronavirus response commission.

The Zulia governor’s office and health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Zulia now has about 600 confirmed infections, or 14% of the country’s total. More than half of those can be traced to Las Pulgas, a popular open-air market in Maracaibo spread out across trash-covered streets where thousands of vendors sell fruit, meat and household products. Of the nation’s 35 confirmed coronavirus deaths, 11 caught the bug at Las Pulgas.

Virus Takes Root in Venezuela Oil Town Already in Collapse

The once-booming town of Maracaibo, which sits along a lake of the same name, is known as the cradle of Venezuela’s oil industry, where the nation’s first crude well was drilled more than a century ago. Now, after U.S. sanctions and mismanagement at state oil company PDVSA devastated the industry, all the rigs on Lake Maracaibo have shut.

After economic collapse fueled a diaspora across Latin America, tens of thousands are now returning home during the coronavirus crisis. Last week, President Nicolas Maduro blamed the outbreak on countrymen flowing in from Colombia, which shares a porous border with Venezuela and Brazil -- a global epicenter for the disease. They are “contaminating their entire families,” he said in a televised address. More than two-thirds of Venezuela’s roughly 4,200 cases are among people who returned from other countries.

Venezuela is reporting a record number of new cases almost daily, and it’s only a matter of time before hospitals outside of Maracaibo are also overrun. Zulia Governor Omar Prieto has been shifting patients with milder symptoms to other public health centers that are in even worse shape than University Hospital, threatening to trigger outbreaks elsewhere.

Thirty nine-year-old Jose Vera went to University Hospital with mild symptoms and spent two weeks sharing a room with four patients and no air conditioning in the 88-degree weather.

He was later taken to a motel, guarded by soldiers, where he’s been for 13 days waiting for his test results to confirm whether or not he has Covid-19.

Recycled Masks

“The hospital is completely collapsed,” Vera said by phone. “I saw people in serious condition sitting in chairs all day waiting to be attended.”

At University Hospital, some nurses and doctors have stopped showing up altogether, fearing they’ll get sick too as they’re forced to recycle masks and wash their hands in buckets of water, said Hania Salazar, president of Zulia’s Nurses Guild.

The board of directors for the Zulia physicians association said in a June 21 statement that 44 doctors had already caught the respiratory illness. Two died and two more are in intensive care.

In a city where residents are malnourished and homes have no running water, the virus is proving catastrophic.

“The virus thrives on misery,” one doctor said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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