Oxygen crisis in Portuguese hospitals in the middle of a covid-19 surge

Germany offers to help Portuguese government, which is considering activating EU cooperation mechanisms

Sònia Sánchez
3 min
A queue of ambulances in front of a hospital in Lisbon, in the middle of a health collapse due to covid -19.

Portuguese hospitals are overwhelmed. Portugal has had three weeks of world records for the number of infections and deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The figures of the last 24 hours confirm it: records have been broken again with 15,073 new cases registered and 293 deaths, in a country of 10 million inhabitants. The avalanche of covid-19 patients is leaving many hospitals on the verge of collapse, especially because of the lack of sufficient pressure to supply oxygen to everyone who needs it.

All the alerts went off on Tuesday night when Amadora-Sintra Hospital, on the outskirts of Lisbon, announced it had to transfer 48 patients to other hospitals to avoid overloading the oxygen system. "What is happening in these hospitals, particularly in Lisbon, is that their capacity has been exceeded; it is what we call a medical catastrophe", the head of the Portuguese doctors' association, Miguel Guimaraes, told Observador radio station. Guimaraes explained that the problem is not a lack of oxygen, but the inability to provide the system with enough pressure to supply it to so many patients at the same time. "We are giving patients the service we can give them, given the circumstances. The only solution is to transfer them to other hospitals, but the problem is that the other hospitals are also full", he added, according to Reuters. The Fernando Fonseca Hospital in the Portuguese capital has also had to transfer 53 patients because of the same problem with the oxygen system, and will transfer 32 more to three different hospitals in Lisbon and Portimão, a town two and a half hours away.

After the "Portuguese miracle" of the first wave, when the maximum peak was 37 deaths a day, and a second with a maximum of 98 deaths and 6,000 infections a day, this third wave has seen the numbers soar, especially after the Christmas holidays when family gatherings were allowed with no limit on the number of people attending and when the restrictive measures in general, which had already been imposed quite late, were relaxed around November. The low incidence of the first wave caused the Portuguese to relax, and the lockdown that began to be applied in autumn was not forceful enough, according to experts. In January, hospitals began to register the increase in the curve of hospitalizations, which has not stopped growing since then. The government points to the British strain, which is more contagious, as the main cause of the explosion of cases, attributing a prevalence of 20%, but experts believe that the relaxation of the population and the laxity of lockdown measures, especially around Christmas, are also important factors in this crisis.

In any case, Portuguese hospitals are on the verge of collapse, with 6,500 patients admitted, 765 of whom are in intensive care. Faced with this situation, the Portuguese government on Wednesday considered activating the European Union's cooperation mechanisms and asking for international aid. Germany, in fact, has already offered to help the Portuguese medical teams with medical equipment, and is even considering sending the armed forces to build a field hospital for the Covid-19, according to the newspaper Der Spiegel, which says the move comes in response to a request from the Portuguese government. The German foreign ministry spokesman, however, explained that the two governments are in contact to assess whether help should be sent - but that no formal request has yet been made.

In Portugal, some provisional structures have already been set up to care for covid patients, such as the one visited on Wednesday by the Deputy Secretary of State for Health, António Lacerda Sales, who explained that the government is considering activating European mechanisms, but has not yet "fully formalized" them. Portuguese hospitals, however, are even considering the possibility of sending patients to health centers in other countries. At the moment, on Wednesday, the Portuguese government has suspended air connections with the United Kingdom and Brazil until February 14.