Oxygen, ICU beds, vaccines: The challenges awaiting Peru’s next gov’t

By Carla Samon Ros

Lima, Apr 7 (efe-epa).- With oxygen in short supply, vaccination moving at a snail’s pace and a public health system that is paying the price for decades of neglect, managing the Covid-19 pandemic looms as the biggest task that will face the president who takes charge of Peru on July 28.

More than 25 million Peruvians are eligible to cast ballots next Sunday even as the Andean nation struggles to cope with a second wave of coronavirus amid its worst economic downturn in 30 years.

While Peru’s official confirmed coronavirus death toll is 53,138, the actual total is thought to be more than 83,000, including fatalities that remain under investigation to determine the cause.

Authorities’ failure to plan for a second wave has led to a repetition of the nightmarish scenes that horrified Peruvians last year. Shortages of oxygen and of beds in intensive care units have grown more acute and the government is scrambling to secure vaccine.

“The quarantine ‘light’ that this government has done didn’t accomplish anything,” Dr. Godofredo Talavera, head of the Peruvian Medical Federation, told Efe, referring to the administration of interim President Francisco Sagasti.

Hospitals are being forced to ration care, Talavera said.

“Currently a patient of 60 and up has no chance of getting an ICU bed because younger people are getting preference,” he said.

And experts fear that a potential third wave could be even more deadly, based on events in neighboring Brazil, where an especially virulent mutation of the virus has emerged.

“If there is going to be a third wave, I believe there will be a spike in cases in mid-May and it will be 100 percent characterized by the Brazilian variant,” the dean of Peru’s medical association, Dr. Miguel Palacios, said in comments to Efe.

By the end of last month, according to a report from the National Institute of Health, the Brazil variant accounted for roughly 40 percent of confirmed cases in Lima.

Without a 30 percent increase in the number of ICU beds, a third wave will bring greater mortality, Palacios said.

Peru has one of the lowest ratios of ICU beds to population among countries at a comparable level of development, leading many Covid-19 patients – notably doctors and nurses – to opt for home care instead of the hospital, resulting in a tripling of demand for oxygen.

The oxygen shortfall is running at more than 100 tons a day.

Last year, the National Engineering University pledged to set up 47 plants to produce medicinal oxygen. As of the end of February, however, only five plants were up and running.

The government signed contracts to obtain additional oxygen from suppliers in Chile and Ecuador, but Palacios said the quantities were too small and called officials’ failure to resolve the problem after so many months “unpardonable.”

Peru’s first vaccine shipment, 1 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm, arrived only at the start of February, and was earmarked for health care workers.

Roughly 20,000 of the country’s more than 76,000 physicians have yet to be vaccinated, Talavera said.

More than 317,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have reached Peru over the last five weeks and the government has been administering them to the elderly and to members of the police and armed forces.

So far, 578,000 people have received one of the two required doses. At this rate, Peru would need 7 1/2 years to achieve full immunization.

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