Doctors despair, schools shut as pandemic overwhelms Portugal

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) - Overwhelmed by record numbers of COVID-19 patients, Portuguese hospital doctors spoke on Thursday of exhaustion and despair, as the government sought to slow contagion rates by ordering all schools to close for 15 days from Friday.

Western Europe's poorest country coped well in last year's first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has been swamped in recent weeks by a faster-spreading mutation, registering the world's highest infection and death rates.

"Lots of people are cracking, lots of people are burning out and it gets harder and harder," said intensive care doctor Gustavo Carona, 40, in Porto. "Everyone is very tired."

Ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals, waiting for beds to become available. An elderly man died in one after waiting inside it for three hours on Tuesday in the town of Portalegre.

Guida da Ponte, deputy head of a doctors' union near Lisbon - whose health authority has put out a call for retired doctors and nurses to help staff makeshift hospitals - said that while more intensive-care beds could be set up, there were just not enough medical professionals.

"Doctors are desperate. The word really is 'despair'," she said.

Citing a more contagious variant of the virus first detected in Britain, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the government had a "civic duty" to reinforce Portugal's lockdown.

The mutation could reach 60% of new COVID-19 cases in coming weeks, up from about 20% now, he told a news conference, while announcing the school system's temporary closure.

Parents of schoolchildren would be allowed to miss work and would receive support, while courts would suspend non-urgent cases, Costa said.

The Catholic Church said earlier it was suspending all public masses from Saturday.

Ricardo Mexia, head of the association of public healthcare doctors, said authorities had failed to prepare for the new surge in infections after relaxing restrictions for the year-end holidays.

"The decision to close schools is coming too late, but it is important to reduce contagion ... I fear the numbers will get even worse," he said.

The government has acknowledged that holiday-time contagion played a role, but blamed the increase in cases mostly on the new variant.

It imposed a lockdown last week under which all non-essential services are shut and people urged to stay at home.

Portugal's daily COVID deaths reached a record of 221 on Thursday, bringing the total toll to 9,686. Daily infections

fell to 13,544 from Wednesday's record of 14,647.

The country of 10 million people has the world's highest rolling average of new cases, at 1,044 per million inhabitants, over the last seven days, according to data tracker

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(Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves and Victoria Waldersee, writing by Ingrid Melander and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet)