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Spain's Health Staff Are Catching The Coronavirus As Protective Gear Runs Short

A health worker wears a protective suit at a nursing home, in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday. With some of the highest cases of COVID-19 in the world, Spain's public health system is overstretched and in need of supplies.
A health worker wears a protective suit at a nursing home, in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday. With some of the highest cases of COVID-19 in the world, Spain's public health system is overstretched and in need of supplies.

Spain is one of the countries worst-hit by the new coronavirus pandemic. As its hospitals race to save patients' lives, many health workers themselves are catching COVID-19.

By last Friday, more than 9,400 medical personnel were infected, which was nearly 15% of all confirmed cases at the time. As of Tuesday, Spain registered over 94,400 cases — more than China's infections — and the world's second highest death toll at over 8,200.

The public shows its gratitude to medical staff each night, as housebound residents go to their windows and balconies to applaud the health care providers. Doctors say they appreciate the public's gesture but that hospitals still urgently need supplies.

Hospitals need more COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, intensive care unit beds and even basic protective gear, says emergency physician Tomás Toranzo, president of the Spanish Confederation of Medical Unions.

"The government is constantly lying," says Toranzo, who works in a hospital in Salamanca, in western Spain. "They promise more material, but it doesn't come."

Last week, Health Minister Salvador Illa announced a $480 million deal to buy surgical masks, gloves and rapid test kits from Chinese companies — but health officials later said many of the test kits were faulty.

Medical staff have taken to reusing material and creating makeshift protective gear out of plastic bags or raincoats.

Spain's public health system is well-regarded. But after the 2008 economic crisis, the government cut billions of dollars in funding, resulting in layoffs and overwhelmed hospitals. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the problem.

"We're left without ventilators, without material," says Rocío de Paz, a doctor in emergencies and primary care in Barcelona's Hospital del Mar. "And often we're not protected from getting infected."

De Paz says the hospital's protocols are changing every day, sometimes several times a day. Many units are being repurposed for intensive care — including operating rooms.

"What makes me angry is having people die because the system is overwhelmed," says De Paz. She and many health professionals believe the number of coronavirus cases is much higher than the official count because there isn't enough testing.

De Paz is working more than ever and feels exhausted. She suspects the government is romanticizing medical work to hide that its actions have been insufficient — and she doesn't want to be labeled a hero, she says.

"You don't feel like a hero, you feel like you've been invited to a war and left to fend for yourself," says De Paz.

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