Peru: Hospitals facing collapse amid exceptionally deadly COVID-19 wave

An MSF medical staff member visits a COVID-19 patient in MSF's new center for temporary isolation and oxygenation in Huacho in Huaura province.

Peru 2021 © Jean-Baptiste Marion/MSF

NEW YORK/LIMA, APRIL 20, 2021—As a new wave of COVID-19 has swept through Peru over the past few weeks, hospitals are overcrowded, mortality rates are high, and vaccinations are scarce, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

MSF has begun working with health authorities in Huaura province, north of Lima, to help the Peruvian health care system in its outbreak response. The regional hospital in the provincial capital, Huacho, is severely short-handed as it faces an increasing number of COVID-19 patients. MSF, which is working in a 50-bed ancillary facility where it can treat patients and provide oxygen, aims to reduce the demands on the Peruvian health system by providing treatment and detecting new cases earlier to try to prevent hospitalizations.

“We want to help to take pressure off Huacho hospital and the local health care system,” said Jean-Baptiste Marion, MSF head of mission. “Today, many non-critical patients end up in Huacho hospital, overwhelming the facility."

In the first week of April, Peru reported an average of almost 10,000 new cases and 300 deaths per day as infection rates are being driven up by the presence of the P1 variant that was first found in Brazil, according to World Health Organization figures. The number of deaths represented an increase in excess of 50 percent over the previous week—meaning the country now suffers from the highest number of excess deaths in the world relative to the population.

Medical staff are already stretched beyond capacity, while intensive care resources are insufficient to meet people’s needs as many hospitals lack oxygen supplies. The consequences for an overstretched health system are devastating. In many cities, people queue overnight and sleep in the street to fill up their oxygen tanks from the few working reservoirs, hoping to take care of their relatives at home.

At MSF’s facility that’s connected to Huacho hospital, patients can be isolated and provided with oxygen. Half of these beds are equipped for clinically monitored isolation, while the other half can provide patients with oxygen, including for people in severe condition. In addition to its own operations, MSF teams are supporting Huacho hospital’s intensive care unit to improve patient management and help through every step of patient flow.

Outside of medical facilities, MSF is partnering with the local authorities’ community outreach activities to help identify people with COVID-19 as early as possible and connect them with appropriate medical care.

“To complement this activity, we work with community networks to improve early detection,” said Jean-Baptiste Marion. “We look to identify patients and provide them with the needed level of care before their condition worsens and they end up in critical condition.”

A major issue observed by MSF teams on the ground is that people are often reluctant to seek medical care in hospitals when they start showing symptoms, opting for self-medication or seeking medical care at private facilities that may not be able to offer the required level of care.

The issues MSF teams are seeing in the hospitals and the community are compounded by scarce access to desperately needed vaccination; only three percent of the population has received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Improving screening and patient management is a priority today,” Jean-Baptiste Marion said. “Without an urgent boost in access to vaccination, though, it is hard to expect an improvement any time soon.”