By Patzzy Salazar.
In the early morning of June 16, at the Maracaibo University Hospital (HUM), epidemiologist Samuel Viloria died. The specialist served as director of that health-care center from May 2015 to September 2017. He became the first doctor to die from COVID-19 in the country after getting the virus while practicing his profession at the HUM.
But Doctor Viloria was not to be the last medical casualty in the fight against the virus. To August 1, almost 19% of all the deceased are doctors, and when the total number of health care workers get factored in, the percentage jumps to 23.6%.
While Dr. Viloria had risk factors (a diabetic with a kidney transplant), critics say that is the lack of simple implements as surgical gloves, facemasks, alcohol, and water that is killing Venezuelan doctors.
Since that day, reports of health personnel dying from the virus have been almost a daily occurrence. In June, seven doctors, two nurses, and one biomedical doctor got reported as killed by the virus. In July, the figures reached 24 health-care professionals having died, including four nurses and one auxiliary nurse.
The last doctor was Juan de la Cruz Barreno Querales, 59 years old, who died on the night of Thursday, July 30, in the Intensive Care Unit of the Hospital in Coro, the first physician victim of the COVID-19 in Falcon state.
To August 1, NGO Doctors United of Venezuela reported 38 deaths of health personnel by COVID-19, 30 of whom were doctors.
According to the figures provided by the NGO, the number of dead health personnel represents 24.1% of the total number of deaths in July. (158).
With data by Doctors United of Venezuela, El Pitazo calculated that the number of doctors who have died corresponds to 18.98% of the total cases.
Comparing the numbers of Venezuela with other countries, El Pitazo found that the percentage of the doctor deceased was disproportionate.
In Peru (to July 2), doctors deceased represent only 0.34% of the total. In Colombia, the percentage is even slimmer: only 0.16% of Coronavirus deaths, six casualties our of 3,641. Chile reports a percent similar to Peru, 0.35%, with Spain being higher than Colombia at 0.22%. Surprisingly, the United States has a much higher percentage than any of the countries mentioned above, 0.58%, but still much smaller than the Venezuela figures.
Lorenzo said that when these cases are analyzed, they cannot separate them from the complex humanitarian emergency in which the country has immersed for the past two years and the forced migration of a high number of doctors.
“Most of the health professionals who have migrated looking for a better quality of life are young, and they are the ones who represent the relay generation. We don’t have young people, and those who die are older professionals with other diseases. That is the appreciation of the very high percentage of physicians who have died compared to other countries. In addition to the precarious health system that does not provide the inputs for health workers to avoid becoming infected,” Dr. Lorenzo said.
In 2019, September 14, the president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation, Douglas Leon Natera, informed in a press conference that due to the economic crisis, more than 30,000 Venezuelan doctors affiliated to the Venezuelan Medical Federation emigrated.
Former health minister and member of the network Defends the Epidemiologic, Dr. Jose Felix Oletta, thinks the high percentage of dead doctors to a lack of precision about the real number of active cases and casualties by COVID-19 in the country.
Increased risk of contagion
The virus gets spread by person-to-person contact. “There are two ways to avoid contagion: social distancing and personal protection. In the medical act, social distancing complicated because the patient must get checked, but to be able to see patients without risk, medical personnel need adequate protection. Otherwise, there is a possibility that evaluating patient results in contagion, and that is the risk that all health personnel experiences,” said Lorenzo.
The doctor said that from the beginning of the epidemic in Venezuela until July 17, health personnel did not have the necessary supplies to be able to care for patients. “The available material was in low quantities, some were made by the personnel in a handmade way or bought on their own. Since Friday (July 17), PAHO and the government have been delivering protective materials to the sentinel hospitals in Caracas, Bolivar, Apure, Tachira, Miranda and Zulia”.
Research by the independent media network Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI) published on June 7, found that only 51% of the sentinel hospitals have the necessary biosecurity kits to protect personnel exposed to cases of COVID-19, and in 28% of these hospitals those kits were incomplete, while 15% did not have any.
Before the arrival of the virus in the country on January 24, 2020, the National Hospital Survey reported that 53% of the hospitals did not have masks, 92% did not have a specific protocol for action, any of them had an area set up to isolate infected patients. The survey was made up of 40 hospitals in 23 states in the country.
On July 27, El Pitazo published a note reviewing the resignation of 10 doctors from the Clinica Popular del Valle due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Sources consulted affirmed that there are no minimum biosafety conditions. They indicated that during the working day, divided into three shifts, only one pair of gloves and a mask are providing per worker.
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that older people and those with previous medical conditions such as heart or lung problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer are more likely to have severe disease.
The health crisis that the country is going through and the lack of gear that makes it possible to adequately protect health personnel to be able to care for patients puts at risk the lives of doctors who are both on the front line of the COVID-19 and those who simply continue with their consultations.