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Lebanon's Full Hospitals Turn Away Coronavirus Patients Amid Record Daily Cases

Jan 8, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 5:04 am

A surge in coronavirus cases is overwhelming hospitals across Lebanon, leading doctors to tell families to care for sick loved ones at home because there's no more space in the wards.

Jean Nakhoul, an executive producer for Lebanon's MTV channel, says his family has been calling around the country and finding no medical treatment for his 83-year-old grandmother who is sick with COVID-19.

"We had a list [of phone numbers] that my uncle and I divided," he says. "I called around 10 hospitals. Nine of them were full and the last one told me they had one ICU bed left, but that the priority is for young people who need ICUs."

Lebanon's health care system was already weak from economic collapse and the Beirut port explosion in August that destroyed buildings across the city, including several hospitals. Now, as the country records its highest number of daily coronavirus infections of the pandemic, hospitals are barely able to find beds for even the most critical patients.

Lebanon registered a record 4,774 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the total confirmed cases over 200,000 in the country of 6.8 million people. Health authorities say more than 1,500 people in the country have died from COVID-19.

The World Health Organization says occupancy rates of intensive care beds in Beirut and other parts of the country are at 93%-95%. With their COVID-19 wards and ICUs full, doctors say many hospitals are now having to keep critical patients in emergency rooms, which are themselves filling quickly.

New Year's parties

Lebanese people celebrate the new year in Beirut. Lebanon entered 2021 with record daily new coronavirus cases, and health workers fear that the celebrations could have spread the virus further.
Hussein Malla / AP

After the toughest year in Lebanon's recent history, many Lebanese decided to relieve stress with one night of partying on New Year's Eve. They packed into bars and held parties at home. Social media lit up with posts from crowds of revelers.

"We are expecting a surge in cases because of the irresponsible behavior over the holidays," says Dr. Firass Abiad, the head of the public Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut.

Bassam Osman, a surgery resident at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, says he and his colleagues felt "terrible" watching the New Year's Eve celebrations. "Imagine working for a whole year. You're exhausted, and then you open your Instagram and you see people partying everywhere like they are not taking anything seriously," he says. "All the feelings of sadness and helplessness go away and it becomes just absolute anger. And then you can do nothing about it because the damage has already been done."

Lockdown, vaccines

On Thursday, Lebanon began its fifth nationwide lockdown since the start of the pandemic, forcing restaurants and shops to close for three weeks. But adherence to past orders has been patchy. Osman says he is not optimistic the measures will have a significant long-term impact.

The health minister says Lebanon will receive its first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 in mid-February and will begin administering the shots at no cost for citizens. In the meantime, doctors say they are bracing for some long, hard weeks.

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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Lebanon, like many countries, is facing a spike in the pandemic. But it's a small country with fewer resources to draw on. Now hospitals around the country are filling up. And the families of some of the sick say they can't find a place to get their loved ones treated. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been in Beirut. And she joins us now to talk about this. And Ruth, so many places are struggling with soaring cases right now, including right here in the U.S. Tell us what it's like over there.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Yeah. Look; I mean, compared to the U.S., the number of people infected here looks tiny. It's just over 200,000 cases. But Lebanon is a very small place. And it really shows you in high relief what happens when COVID overwhelms a whole country. So the ICUs and COVID wards in hospitals here in Beirut are almost totally full, but the thing is, so are the wards in hospitals in pretty much every other city and even in remote, rural areas.

I spoke with Jean Nakhoul. He's a producer for a TV channel here. And his 83-year-old grandmother is sick with COVID-19. She also has asthma. And the family are just really worried and want to find her a bed. So he and his uncle pulled up a list of hospitals from all over the country and started calling.

JEAN NAKHOUL: I called - myself, called around 10 hospitals. Nine of them were full. The last one had an ICU. But they told me that the priority is for young people who need ICUs.

SHERLOCK: Doctors tell me this kind of triage to prioritize young people isn't a policy. But they agree that it's likely happening in some cases because health care workers are just struggling to cope. You know, today there are local news reports to say that in one town, doctors are now treating people in their cars...

MOSLEY: Oh, wow.

SHERLOCK: ...Because there's no space in hospitals. Yeah.

MOSLEY: What is it that makes things especially bad in Lebanon?

SHERLOCK: Look; it comes like - we're seeing a spike of COVID cases in many countries around the world at this time of year. But here in Lebanon, it's partly about the economy. There's a full-blown economic crisis. And the government can't support businesses and individuals who have to stop work in the lockdown. So people say, well, we just can't stay at home. And on top of that, the health care system is weaker. You know, this past summer, there was a massive explosion at Beirut's port that destroyed buildings across the capital, including some hospitals.

And then there's also this sense that after such an awful year, people have just had enough. So during Christmas and New Year, lots of people decided to blow off steam with big parties. I spoke to Bassam Osman, he's a doctor at the American University of Beirut Hospital, about how he feels about that.

BASSAM OSMAN: Terrible. Terrible. Imagine working for a whole year, exhausted. And then you open your Instagram and start flipping through the stories. And you see people partying everywhere like they are not taking anything seriously.

SHERLOCK: He said his sadness kind of turned to anger. But then there's also helplessness.

MOSLEY: I can imagine. So where do things go from here?

SHERLOCK: Well, a partial lockdown started last week, but there's been so many violations of that lockdown that the government is considering now imposing a harsher version, which closes all businesses and allows - stops all cars from being on the road. In the longer term, Lebanon has bought some of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But the first batch isn't coming until February. And that's only going to be 60,000 doses. The real challenge at the moment for politicians and health care workers is figuring out how to lower the infection rate in the coming weeks and try to stop these hospitals from being so completely overwhelmed.

MOSLEY: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

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