BARAKALDO, Spain (Reuters) - At the Cruces hospital just outside the Spanish city of Bilbao, the sound of power drills and hammers rings out as a construction crew gets to work on a new intensive care ward in preparation for a potential winter surge in COVID-19 cases.
“Winter is going to be a high-risk time for us as more people will be staying at home in enclosed spaces, raising the risk of infection,” said Dr Alberto Martinez Ruiz, the hospital’s head of anaesthesiology and recovery.
During the epidemic’s first peak in March, when the virus spread unchecked through Spain’s population, the hospital struggled to accommodate an unprecedented surge in critically ill patients.
“Our experience of the COVID epidemic was of a terrible avalanche of patients in a short time,” Dr Ruiz recalled. “In March we were admitting up to seven or eight patients a day.”
Irregular spaces like gyms were hastily transformed into wards, rapidly increasing capacity to more than 80 beds from 32.
“From one day to the next they all filled up. That allowed us to save lots of lives,” Dr Ruiz said.
Imposing one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns helped Spain bring down the contagion and gave the health service a chance to regain its footing. But infections have soared since the nationwide confinement ended in mid-June, with cases now rising by more than 10,000 a day.
Spain has logged nearly 770,000 cases, more than anywhere else in Western Europe, and almost 32,000 deaths.
Hospitalizations are on the increase too but the number of severe cases remains far lower than during the first wave and ICUs across the country have plenty of spare capacity for now.
The average age of patients admitted to Cruces is now between 60-65, around 10 years lower than during the first wave.
“Patients are being admitted earlier than expected but in a much more staggered fashion,” Dr Fermin Labayan, head of Intensive care at Cruces, told Reuters. “We don’t have the same pressure.”
With the new ward boosting capacity to more than 200 critical beds and just 14 patients currently admitted, the medics feel the hospital should be able to cope even if severe cases begin to spiral and they now have of experience of which treatments are most effective.
“We are mentally quite tired... But we are prepared,” Dr Labayan said.
Reporting by Vincent West; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Alexandra Hudson
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