Beirut, Lebanon – Doctors have warned that Lebanese hospitals will struggle to cope with a large influx of coronavirus patients amid an increase in the number of new cases caused by the highly contagious Delta variant.
Lebanon recorded 577 new COVID-19 infections over a 24-hour period on Friday, according to the health ministry, the first time that more than 500 daily cases have been reported since May. The number of new cases recorded on Saturday was slightly lower, with 488 new confirmed infections, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the epidemic to 550,492.
Dubbed the “fastest and fittest” of the coronavirus variants by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Delta variant is highly transmissible and has spread to dozens of countries around the world.
Medical experts have warned that a new wave of coronavirus could put unbearable pressure on the fragile healthcare system, which has come under increased pressure since the country’s economic and financial crises began in late 2019.
“This [rise in coronavirus cases] is an exacerbation of what is already a difficult situation, ”Dr Firass Abiad, head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), told Al Jazeera.
“Our resources to face a new [COVID-19] vague aren’t what they were a year ago, or even last summer, ”he said. “We are not well prepared for what appears to be a dangerous variant [Delta],” he said.
Dr Abiad said RHUH, Lebanon’s largest public hospital, was able to cope with the devastating wave of coronavirus in early 2021 as the hospital received donations following the Beirut explosion that took place in August 2020.
The number of coronavirus patients admitted to RHUH has increased in recent days, he noted.
“Whether it’s because other hospitals have closed their coronavirus wings or because cases have increased, it’s early to tell,” said Dr Abiad.
RHUH has played a central role in Lebanon’s response to the coronavirus since the virus was first detected in the country in early 2020.
Like many other hospitals in Lebanon, RHUH is already facing a series of challenges arising from the country’s economic crisis. In recent weeks, there have been severe power cuts, with some areas receiving as little as an hour of state-supplied electricity per day, which in turn has put enormous strain on power generators. relief. Separately, a fuel crisis has meant these generators cannot run around the clock.
“We need a lot of fuel for our generators but there is a shortage,” said Dr Abiad, adding that RHUH’s generators were in danger of breaking down.
This in turn put the well-being of patients at risk, said Dr Abiad.
A doctor at the government Sibline Hospital, who requested anonymity, said the hospital could not accommodate coronavirus patients.
“We don’t have enough electricity to plug in an oxygen machine,” he said.
The hospital, located south of Beirut, threatened this week to cease operations and only continue emergency services, demanding payments from the government for reimbursements – which are long overdue – to keep its doors open.
The healthcare sector is also grappling with a shortage of medical supplies and equipment, much of which is imported, due to the extreme devaluation of the local currency, which has lost around 90% of its value since late 2019. .
“We miss something every day. Anesthetics, at one point steroids… the market is very erratic, even when something is available it is available in small amounts, ”said Dr Abiad. “It’s a daily struggle.
Even private hospitals, with far more resources than public hospitals, suffer from shortages.
“Basic drugs for the management of pain and hypertension, antibiotics, anesthetics, are difficult to find these days,” said Dr Georges Ghanem, chief medical officer of the Lebanese American University Medical Center. -Rizk (LAUMC-Rizk).
As the number of COVID infections continued to rise, LAUMC-Rizk reopened its coronavirus wing last week after transforming this area for normal operations.
“We have had few admissions so far, mostly mild to moderate cases, with a few severe cases,” Dr Ghanem said.
Dr Ghanem said he did not expect the wave to be severe at this time in terms of hospital admissions, but added that the hospital “is preparing the ground so that it can at least treat a few. case”.
He warned that things were “going in the wrong direction”.
“I hope we don’t have the post-Christmas rush,” he added.
Lebanon has been hit by its most severe coronavirus wave after the December-January holiday season. More than 6,000 cases a day have been recorded at any given time in January, a month that ended with more than 1,600 deaths from the coronavirus.
“The increase in coronavirus cases has not yet reached an alarming level but must be watched with caution,” said Dr Ghazi Zaatari, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. (AUBMC).
“I hope we will be spared this time,” he added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of healthcare workers have left the country in recent months to seek better opportunities abroad, after seeing their wages devalued to as little as $ 100 a month amid the financial crisis. The exodus has left several hospitals with staff shortages.
“If the scenario of January is repeated, the hospitals will be in very bad shape, since then even more health executives have left the country,” said Dr Zaatari.
As a result, the doctors and nurses who remained in the country are overworked.
“Healthcare workers are exhausted,” Dr Abiad said.
Dr Ghanem predicts that a new wave of emigration of healthcare workers will take place in the coming weeks because workers “don’t have the right tools to practice medicine.”
Vaccination, the only way out
To stem the spread of the Delta variant, the Lebanese government last week issued new restrictions on travelers from some countries like Brazil, India, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, forcing them to stay quarantine after arrival. All other passengers, except those who are vaccinated two weeks before travel, must undergo a PCR test upon arrival.
“While on the one hand we are happy that expats come and want to spend their summer in Lebanon and support the economy in one way or another, they also bring variations,” Dr Zaatari said.
In addition to these restrictions, officials say it is too early to impose tougher measures. “The numbers do not allow it,” said Petra Khoury, public health adviser to interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
“Our number one priority is to increase vaccination campaigns and contact tracing,” she added.
While vaccination is considered the only effective preventive measure, the vaccination rollout has suffered from logistical challenges since its launch in February and only around 14% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
The government rollout has relied mainly on the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, but only about 30 percent of the population has signed up on the government’s official platform for the jab.
The Sputnik V and Sinopharm jabs were also provided to some sectors through donations and purchased by the private sector.
Vaccine “marathons” designed to speed up the process were canceled last week due to nothing but power cuts and internet problems.
As restrictions on business and daily life have eased, adherence to physical distancing guidelines has declined, with large, overcrowded events becoming commonplace and wearing face masks much less common than in previous waves.
“We are begging people to obey the restrictions, it is no joke when the country’s economy collapsed,” said Dr Assem Araji, head of the parliamentary health committee.
“I am afraid that when we arrive in September, the cases will be very high again. The health sector is already in ruins,” he added.
Dr Zaatari also predicted that if a new wave hits, it will arrive in late August or early September.
“The problem with COVID-19 restrictions is the implementation. No one remains. People have lost confidence in their government and this is reflected in their support for these measures, ”added Dr Abiad.
“Public health is a matter of trust.