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"They just sedate them": Coronavirus overwhelms Spain's care homes

  • Nacho Doce and Nathan Allen

    Reuters

Madrid, Spain   /   Mon, April 6, 2020   /   11:32 am
A patient applauds as another patient is discharged from the temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients located at the Ifema convention and exhibition centre in Madrid, on Friday. (AFP/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU )

As Spain struggles desperately to cope with more than 130,000 coronavirus infections, it barely has the strength to help its overwhelmed care homes and their elderly residents, singularly vulnerable to the respiratory disease.

With hospitals stretched to breaking point, the elderly are being turned away, and the care homes, lacking staff and appropriate equipment, must do what they can for the sick and dying.

"When they are very sick - not only here, in more than one place - ... when they see there is no solution ... they sedate them and see how long they last, because they're leaving intensive care wards for younger people," said Maria Jose Alvarez, whose 85-year-old mother is in a home near Barcelona.

"It's sad, it's really sad. They don't deserve this."

The home did not respond to requests for comment, but the local government in the area said half the home's residents were in isolation. In addition, two-thirds of its workers had been sent home because of the virus, a picture that the UGT union says has been repeated across Spain.

After Italy, Spain has the world's second highest death toll, with over 12,000 fatalities as of Monday.

Of a total of 3,000 deaths recorded at Madrid nursing homes in the past month, regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso said around 2,000 were likely to have been the result of coronavirus, though it was unclear how many of those appear in official figures due to a lack of testing.

At one care home in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, 46 people have died since March 15.

Like seven other private care homes in the area, it has been taken over by regional authorities.

"Faced with an infection of this scale, we simply aren't prepared," said Antonio Morales, operations director with the owner, Vitalia Homes.

He said at least 150 of the residents were likely to be infected - but that some hospitals had stopped admitting patients from care homes, forcing the residences to cope as best they could.

A lack of testing kits was preventing staff confirming whether or not the patients had contracted the disease.

And the few staff who are not ill or scared and still coming to work often have to contend with a lack of protective equipment such as masks and gloves, though supplies are beginning to filter through.

"We're a care home, not a hospital," Morales said.

Union leaders say many homes are failing to adhere to basic protocols such as separating healthy residents from those who have tested positive or have symptoms.

Army units deployed to disinfect care homes across Spain have discovered unattended bodies, as staff lacked the resources to dispose of them properly.

Official data released on Friday showed that care home residents accounted for around 40% of coronavirus deaths in the region of Castilla y Leon, and a quarter in neighboring Castilla La Mancha.

In the northeasterly Catalonia region, authorities said on Thursday that 31% of care homes had residents with coronavirus symptoms, and that they had reported 511 deaths.