MSF: Support urgently needed across Europe to protect medical staff from coronavirus

Coronavirus disease cells as a 3D render

© Shutterstock

NEW YORK/BRUSSELS, MARCH, 16 2020—As the number of people with the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, continues to rise rapidly across Europe—now the epicenter of the pandemic—the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging European member states to demonstrate solidarity beyond their national borders. Essential medical supplies, including personal protective equipment like face masks to protect health care staff, must be urgently channeled to where they are most needed at the moment.

In Italy, where MSF began working in four hospitals at the epicenter of the outbreak last week, shortages of personal protective equipment are increasingly common, leaving health care workers on the frontline vulnerable to the coronavirus. Protective equipment shortages are fueling the epidemic and hampering the ability to save lives. Nearly 1,700 health care workers in Italy—or 8 percent of the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country—have been infected while caring for the rising number of severely ill patients who require long-term hospitalization and specialized intensive care.

“Even in high-level European hospitals we see health workers are overwhelmed, coping with up to 80 ambulances per day, with dramatic shortages of protective equipment that put them at great risk,” said Dr. Claudia Lodesani, president of MSF in Italy and lead of the MSF COVID-19 response in the country. “Some doctors are forced to wear the same face mask for 12 hours. Every day we are receiving new calls for help, for more staff, for more supplies. Without an influx of urgently needed protective equipment, more and more health care workers will fall ill, reducing the availability of care for patients, generating new clusters of cases, and dangerously weakening the fight against the disease.”

At this moment of crisis, no country can cope or produce the supplies they need alone. European member states need to urgently implement the solidarity mechanisms put in place by the European Union. Resources must be shared to fight the pandemic where it is currently raging.

“Today it is Italy that urgently needs supplies of medical equipment to protect health care workers, but in a few weeks, it may also be the case elsewhere,” said Brice de le Vingne, head of the MSF COVID-19 task force in Brussels. “Along with increased production, European governments must ensure that supplies can then be shipped easily to the virus hotspots. Meanwhile, threats to close borders risk harming the flow of resources and staff to the most affected areas.”

MSF urges that cooperation should be fostered between states to avoid the stockpiling of supplies. Instead, assistance should be offered across borders to protect healthcare workers who are our collective first line of response against coronavirus.

“This virus respects no borders and solidarity, too, must be extended beyond them,” de le Vingne said. “COVID-19 continues to spread, and every country will face the same challenge unless the epicenter of the pandemic is tackled with a strong common effort.”

In addition to reinforcing hospitals and individual patient care, it is paramount to boost the standard public health measures that have proved effective in bringing other infectious disease outbreaks under control. This includes proactive case finding and contact tracing, testing, isolation of patients, isolation of high-risk contacts, mobilization of the general public to prevent onward transmission, and a strict triage of mild and severe patients in hospitals. As individuals, members of the public should strictly follow the key hygiene measures and social distancing to help flatten the curve of the epidemic, avoid overwhelming hospitals, and preserve access to health care for those most in need.

All of this is critical to get the epidemic under control and minimize the number of deaths, both among COVID-19 patients but also other injured and sick patients requiring health care.

Find out more about MSF’s response to the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19: