Beirut, Lebanon – Doctors warned that Lebanon’s hospitals will struggle to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients due to a surge in the number of new cases caused by the highly contagious Delta variant.
According to the Ministry of Health, Lebanon recorded 577 new cases of COVID-19 infection in 24 hours on Friday, the first time it has reported more than 500 cases per day since May. The number of new cases recorded on Saturday was slightly lower, with 488 newly confirmed infections, bringing the total number of cases since the outbreak to 550,492.
The Delta variant, which the World Health Organization (WHO) calls the “fastest and best fit” among the coronavirus variants, is highly contagious and has spread to dozens of countries around the world.
Medical experts warn that the new wave of coronavirus may put unbearable pressure on the fragile health system, which has been under increasing pressure since the country’s economic and financial crisis began at the end of 2019.
“This [rise in coronavirus cases] Dr. Firass Abiad, head of Rafic Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), told Al Jazeera.
“Our resources to deal with the new [COVID-19] Wave is different from a year ago or even last summer,” he said. “We are not prepared for the seemingly dangerous variants. [Delta],” He says.
Dr. Abbiad said that RHUH, Lebanon’s largest public hospital, was able to cope with the devastating coronavirus wave in early 2021 because the hospital received donations after the Beirut explosion in August 2020.
He pointed out that the number of coronavirus patients admitted to RHUH has increased in recent days.
“Whether it is because other hospitals have closed their coronavirus departments or because of the increase in cases, it is too early to say,” Dr. Abbiad explained.
Since the virus was first discovered in the country in early 2020, RHUH has played a central role in Lebanon’s coronavirus response.
Like many other hospitals in Lebanon, RHUH has faced a series of challenges brought about by the country’s economic crisis. In recent weeks, severe power outages have occurred in some areas, and only one hour of national power per day has been available, which in turn has put tremendous pressure on backup generators. In addition, the fuel crisis means that these generators cannot operate around the clock.
“Our generators require a lot of fuel, but there is a shortage of fuel,” Dr. Abiad said, adding that RHUH’s generators are at risk of failure.
Dr. Abbiad said this in turn puts the patient’s health at risk.
A doctor at the Sibline Government Hospital who requested anonymity said the hospital cannot accept coronavirus patients.
“We don’t have enough power to plug in the oxygen generator,” he said.
The hospital in the south of Beirut threatened to stop operations this week, only continue to provide emergency services, and asked the government to pay long overdue reimbursement to keep its doors open.
Due to the extreme depreciation of the local currency and the shortage of medical supplies and equipment, most of which are imported, the healthcare industry is also in trouble. Since the end of 2019, the local currency has depreciated by about 90%.
“We ran out of things every day. Anesthetics, once steroids… The market is very unstable, even if there is something available, it can only be supplied in small quantities,” Dr. Abbiad said. “This is a daily struggle.”
Even private hospitals, which have significantly more resources than public hospitals, are struggling with shortages.
Dr. Georges Ghanem, chief medical officer of the Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk (LAUMC-Rizk), said: “Today, it is difficult to find essential medicines, antibiotics and anesthetics for the treatment of pain and hypertension.”
As the number of COVID infections continues to rise, LAUMC-Rizk reopened its coronavirus department last week after transforming the area into normal operations.
Dr. Ghanem said: “So far, our hospital admissions are very small, mainly mild to moderate cases, and some severe cases.”
Dr. Ghanem said that he does not expect the current wave to be severe in terms of hospital admissions, but added that the hospital is “preparing to be able to handle at least some cases”.
He warned that things were “going in the wrong direction.”
“Hope we won’t experience the rush after Christmas,” he added.
After the December-January holiday, Lebanon suffered the worst coronavirus wave. At some point in January, more than 6,000 cases were recorded every day, and more than 1,600 people died from the coronavirus at the end of the month.
Dr. Ghazi Zaatari, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC), said: “The increase in coronavirus cases has not reached an alarming level, but it should be observed with caution.”
“Hopefully we can survive this time,” he added.
At the same time, during the financial crisis, hundreds of medical staff watched their wages depreciate to $100 a month, and therefore left the country in recent months to seek better opportunities abroad. The outflow has caused several hospitals to face a shortage of personnel.
“If the situation in January repeats itself, the condition of the hospital will be very bad, and since then, more medical cadres have left the country,” Dr Zatari said.
As a result, the doctors and nurses remaining in the country are overworked.
“The medical staff has been spent,” Dr. Abbiad said.
Dr. Ghanem predicts that there will be another wave of emigration of medical staff in the next few weeks because workers “do not have good medical tools”.
Vaccination is the only way
In order to prevent the spread of the delta virus, the Lebanese government last week issued new restrictions on travelers from certain countries such as Brazil, India, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, requiring them to be quarantined upon arrival. Except for passengers who were vaccinated two weeks before travel, all other passengers must undergo PCR testing on arrival.
Dr. Zaatari said: “On the one hand we are very happy that foreigners have come to Lebanon and want to spend their summer in Lebanon and support the economy in some way, but they have also brought variants.”
In addition to these restrictions, officials say it is too early to take stricter measures. “The numbers do not allow this,” said Petra Curry, a public health adviser to the caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
“Our top priority is to increase vaccination and contact tracing,” she added.
Although vaccination is considered the only effective preventive measure, there have been logistical problems with the vaccination program since its inception in February, with only about 14% of the population receiving full vaccination.
The government-launched vaccine mainly relies on Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, but only about 30% of the population has registered the vaccine on the government’s official platform.
Sputnik V and Sinopharm’s JAB are also donated to certain departments and purchased by the private sector.
Due to power outages and Internet problems, the vaccine “marathon” designed to speed up this process was cancelled in the past week.
With the relaxation of restrictions on businesses and daily life, people’s compliance with the guidelines for maintaining social distancing has decreased, and large-scale crowd gatherings have become commonplace, and the situation of wearing masks is far less popular than in previous waves.
Dr. Assem Araji, chairman of the Parliamentary Health Committee, said: “We beg people to comply with the restrictions. When the country’s economy collapses, it’s no joke.
“I worry that by September, the number of cases will be high again… The health department is already in trouble,” he added.
Dr. Zaatari also predicted that if a new wave strikes, it will arrive at the end of August or early September.
“The problem with COVID-19 restrictions is implementation. No one insists. People have lost trust in the government and this is reflected in their compliance with these measures,” Dr. Abbiad added.
“Public health is about trust.”