SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile has surpassed 30,000 cases of the new coronavirus, the health ministry said on Monday, amid a spike in infections that has put hospitals under stress and raised fears of complications with the arrival of the southern hemisphere winter.
The health ministry said in its daily briefing that total cases since the outbreak began in early March had hit 30,063, while 323 people have died.
The tally puts Chile fourth for confirmed cases in Latin America, according to a Reuters count, behind Brazil, Peru and Mexico, but just ahead of Ecuador.
Chile, the world´s top copper producer, is bracing for a peak in infections as cool temperatures settle across the region. Many homes in poor urban areas depend on cheap firewood for heat, increasing concerns that worsening air pollution could make more people vulnerable to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Health minister Jaime Manalich said in the briefing Monday that the capital Santiago, a city of nearly 8 million and Chile’s economic engine, was under particular stress as cases have spiked.
“Our health system, especially in Santiago, is being highly demanded by people sick from COVID,” Manalich said. “The situation in Santiago ... has us extremely concerned and busy.”
Seventy percent of the country´s cases are concentrated in Santiago, health ministry figures show. A survey of 122 Chilean hospitals by the Society of Intensive Care Medicine showed 89% of critical care beds in the Metropolitan Region were in use and 78% of ventilators.
Chile has sharply increased testing in the past week, resulting in a rise in confirmed cases.
One of Latin America´s wealthiest countries, Chile has been widely praised for its approach to combating the coronavirus, including mass testing, flexible region-specific quarantines and early action to secure additional ventilators.
Towards the end of April, President Sebastian Pinera had outlined a “new normality” including the return to work by public servants and the gradual reopening of schools and malls.
But increasing cases and deaths in the past week have led to new quarantines and calls by some medical experts for nationwide lockdowns to ease pressure on the health care system.
“Our hospitals are full ... and our system is being stressed to the max,” said Dr. José Miguel Bernucci, secretary of Chile´s National Medical Association. “This is why it is extremely important to increase isolation measures.”
Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Natalia Ramos, Editing by Franklin Paul and Grant McCool