By Catarina Demony and Michael Nienaber
LISBON (Reuters) - A German military plane carrying over 20 doctors and nurses together with ventilators and hospital beds arrived on Wednesday in coronavirus-stricken Portugal, where a severe rise in cases has prompted several European nations to offer help.
The German team will manage a new unit of eight ICU beds in a private hospital in Lisbon, Hospital da Luz, which was equipped but lacked the staff to operate, Health Minister Marta Temido said at the military base where the plane landed.
"Eight beds may not sound like much, but it is a lot for a health system under significant pressure," Temido said."The help Germany extended is of great use for a health system facing the challenges we are - highly specialised health professionals."
The medical team, consisting of eight doctors and 18 nurses, brought with them 150 hospital beds and 50 ventilators.
"This is a vivid sign of European solidarity and a symbol of hope," German Ambassador Martin Ney said at the military base.
Austria has offered to take in 10 to 15 COVID-19 intensive care patients who would be distributed in various hospitals across the country, its ambassador in Portugal told Reuters.
Hospitals across Portugal, a nation of about 10 million people, appear on the verge of collapse, with ambulances sometimes queuing for hours because of a lack of beds while some health units are struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased.
For most Portuguese, vaccination against the virus is the light at the end of the tunnel. But so far only about 75,000 people have been fully vaccinated with the two required doses.
As elsewuere, there has been some controversy around the vaccination process, with some - from mayors to care home managers - jumping the queue to get the shot.
The head of Portugal's vaccination task force Francisco Ramos stepped down on Wednesday after he became aware of "irregularities" in the process of selecting which health workers should be vaccinated at the Red Cross Hospital, where he is the chief executive, he said in a statement cited by daily Diario de Noticias and other media.
Although daily infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the country on Wednesday retreated further from last week's records, doctors and nurses are still over-stretched and the number of patients in need of critical care remains high.
Portugal, which has so far reported a total of 13,257 COVID-19 deaths and 740,944 cases, reported close to half of all its COVID-19 deaths last month as cases accelerated.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee in Lisbon; Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua; editing by Angus MacSwan and Alexandra Hudson)