BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Verónica Verdino, an Argentine doctor, helped a therapist insert a tube into the trachea of a COVID-19 patient during another hectic day in a hospital emergency room.
Verdino, 31, has become adept at the delicate procedure during the current outbreak of coronavirus cases that has filled clinics in Buenos Aires and nearby towns with patients.
A little over a year ago, before the pandemic hit Argentina, Verdino did not imagine that she would be performing so many intubations, and helping others with the same procedure, at the Llavallol Dr. Norberto Raúl Piacentini Hospital in the town of Lomas de Zamora, outside Buenos Aires.
Now doctors who used to be on duty in general wards have become experts in this and other complex techniques typical of intensive care specialists as they help patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Some wards have been converted into intensive care units because the outbreak is straining the health system.
The situation at the hospital where Verdino works is similar in many public and private health facilities in Buenos Aires and nearby towns, with an average of more than 20,000 infections and 400 deaths per day in recent weeks and 100% occupation of ICUs in some centers.
Doctors say they are seeing many younger patients, partly because youths are being infected with coronavirus variants at social gatherings, while older people are protected by vaccines they have received.
“We’re cutting corners everywhere … We have all the illnesses other than COVID, plus this (coronavirus) wave that exploded,” Verdino told The Associated Press during a recent 24-hour shift.
The husband of the woman who was intubated by Verdino stared dejectedly through the glass from the other side of a door. Nearby, in another room, two patients lay connected to respirators. A few meters away, a man who had just died was placed in a black plastic bag.
A few days later, on another grueling shift, Verdino climbed onto a small bench next to the bed of a man she had tried to intubate, leaned over his chest and performed CPR in a desperate attempt to save his life. Several of her colleagues helped her.
The patient died. Verdina and her colleague, Stephanie Muñoz, took time to prepare the man’s body and the room before his son viewed him through the window of the door.
Nurses describe a situation known as “warm bed”, in which a patient who has died is promptly replaced in a room by another seriously ill person.
General ward medics have also learned to master the use of complex drugs that keep patients sedated and to study electrocardiograms and CT scans, as well as to perform laryngoscopes. They do it as oxygen supplies become scarce in hospitals, which have formed networks to assist each other when they can.
“I was used to working a lot but this overwhelms you in everything,” said nurse Silvia Cardoso, who works with Verdino.
Cardoso said she was shocked by the number of young people who are hospitalized with serious symptoms, something that did not happen previously.
“It could be prevented,” she lamented, suggesting that some young people had not observed health protocols.
Police in some Argentine towns often break up clandestine parties. In restaurants that serve outdoors, tables full of diners are placed close to each other. Parks are full of people having picnics and playing sports. There are frequent social protests, including for higher wages, in Buenos Aires.
With people exhausted by quarantines and vaccination programs going slowly, politicians argue over issues such as whether to allow students back to class. During a peak of coronavirus cases, students went to school in Buenos Aires but were not allowed to do so in the city suburbs, creating a confusing situation.
Many doctors try to stay out of the political disputes, instead urging people to stick to measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Argentina has so far reported more than 67,300 confirmed deaths and more than 3.1 million people sickened by the disease.
If people don’t collaborate, “the point will come where the health system collapses,” Verdino said.
Associated Press journalist Natacha Pisarenko contributed to this report.