Chile doctors fear complacency over Covid-19 after initial successes

Charis McGowan in Santiago
Photograph: José Luis Saavedra/Reuters

Chile has received early plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus crisis and boasts Latin America’s highest testing rate for the infection. But health workers on the frontline of the outbreak fear authorities are overestimating hospitals’ capacity to care for critically ill patients.

The country’s health minister, Jaime Mañalich, has praised Chile’s health system as “one of the best on the planet” and insisted that enough beds have been available for critical patients.

So far, Chile’s Covid-19 mortality rate is 0.95% – well below the global average of 4.7% – but medics warn that this figure is giving authorities a false sense of security.

“It’s far too soon to say whether Chile is tackling this successfully,” warned Dr Claudia Cortés, an infectious disease specialist in the capital, Santiago.

Despite increases in the numbers of Covid cases in Chile’s capital, the majority of the city is not under quarantine. Several districts have been on lockdown for the past two weeks, but these measures will be lifted next week in six affected neighbourhoods.

Early Covid-19 cases were concentrated in Santiago’s rich neighbourhoods, imported by wealthy families returning from their summer holidays in Europe. Most of those cases were treated in private hospitals.

Related: 'They're leaving us to die': Ecuadorians' plead for help as virus blazes deadly trail

But Cortés works between private and public hospitals attending Covid-19 patients – and she fears death rates will rocket as the virus spreads to poorer areas.

“People in public hospitals get sick differently from ones in private hospitals — they are like two different worlds,” she said.

Dr Gabriel de la Fuente Tessler, who works with critically ill Covid-19 patients in a Santiago public hospital, also believes the statistics are misleading.

He identified the lack of ventilators as a key problem: his hospital has only 18 machines, 14 of which are already in use. Each day, more patients are coming in, and no one is leaving.

“The bus is filling up, and soon there won’t be any seats,” Fuente said.

Temuco, 845km south of the capital, has seen Chile’s highest coronavirus death rates. Located in Chile’s poorest region, Araucania, the city is plagued by high pollution levels, contributing to respiratory sickness in locals.

Temuco’s central hospital has dedicated three floors to critical Covid-19 patients.

Videos from the overrun hospital have circulated on social media, with staff resorting to wearing bin bags and adhesive tape as forms of protection. Family of deceased coronavirus patients told local media the hospital was turning away critical patients due to lack of resources.

Dr Carolina Chahin, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital, predicted the upcoming winter months would hit Chile’s colder, southern regions hard.

“We do not feel prepared,” she said.

“The public health system in Chile is impoverished,” she said, adding that Temuco’s hospital was the only one in the region with equipment to care for critical Covid-19 cases. Last week, all of its ventilators were at capacity.

The health ministry immediately shipped six new machines to the hospital but Chahin said they did not have the staff to operate them.

Doctors suspect the virus will quickly spread, exacerbated by the Easter holiday weekend. Although authorities are restricting travel, city-dwellers in Santiago have been attempting to get to their second homes on the coast.

“It’s like waiting for a big wave to break,” said Dr Álvaro Piffaut, who runs the intensive care unit in Valparaíso, a popular weekend and holiday destination. “We need a nationwide lockdown, now.”

Piffaut said his staff were worried and afraid. He believes Mañalich is “out of touch” with the reality of public hospitals.

“We are going to do everything we need to do,” he said. “If we are successful, it’s credit to healthcare workers, not the government.”