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Devastating Covid wave stretches HCMC healthcare system thin

By Le Phuong, Huu Cong   July 14, 2021 | 12:03 am PT
Devastating Covid wave stretches HCMC healthcare system thin
A medical worker carries supplies to a field hospital in HCMC's Thu Duc City. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.
Facing its worst coronavirus outbreak yet, HCMC has no choice but to request help as doctors feel the daily brunt of rising new cases.

It's been three weeks since doctor Nguyen Thien Binh, who works in the ICU of Trung Vuong Covid-19 Hospital in HCMC's District 10, went home. He finished his more recent shift, lasting eight hours, by hooking four coronavirus patients to ventilators, something he said he had "never done so many times within a single day."

Trung Vuong Covid-19 Hospital was converted to specialize in treating Covid-19 back in June, when the number of cases in Ho Chi Minh City began to rise dramatically. Currently, the hospital is treating around 700 cases, 90 considered severe.

As per Ministry of Health standards, one doctor is only supposed to care for two patients within the ICU. But as outbreaks in HCMC began to spiral out of control, a doctor has to simultaneously care for dozens of patients. Now, Binh's ICU hosts 20 patients on ventilators.

"The number of patients is too large. When one manages to get off the ventilator, another comes in," he said.

At a local field hospital in Binh Chanh District, doctor Tong Ho Tu from HCMC Children's Hospital and hundreds of his colleagues were also preparing the facility to receive increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients. They were first sent there from other hospitals in the city to take care of mild and asymptomatic cases. Within only four days up to July 12, the facility had received over 1,800 cases.

"Ambulances that carry coronavirus patients line up in droves. The blaring sirens and loudspeakers that kept pumping out announcements... continued all day and night," said Phuong.

HCMC, the nation's largest coronavirus hotspot, has recorded 18,210 local cases since the fourth coronavirus wave hit Vietnam in late April. For several consecutive days, the number of daily cases in the southern city never dropped below 1,000 with no sign of reduction in the near future.

The metropolis now has 19 active field hospitals and is building five more. All these hospitals have a combined capacity of nearly 45,000 beds and are treating over 16,000 patients.

On average, one doctor at a field hospital is responsible for 82-92 patients at any one time.

"It's much worse than the last time I was deployed to fight the pandemic," an unnamed doctor said, adding everyone had to be divided into shifts as the number of daily new cases kept rising.

Reinforcements required

"It's a huge burden on the medical system," Deputy Director of the HCMC Department of Health Nguyen Hoai Nam remarked. Hospitals specialized in treating Covid-19 are all overloaded. For every 1,000 beds on average, around 200 medical workers are needed, said Nam.

The city is currently employing over 12,400 people for contact tracing, testing and treating efforts. Over 36 percent treat Covid-19 patients, 53 percent take samples for testing, while the rest are contact tracers, he added.

However, HCMC would need around 1,500 more doctors and 5,500 more nurses and technicians on the coronavirus frontline, said Tang Chi Thuong, deputy director of the HCMC Department of Health. These reinforcements would be responsible for treating Covid-19 patients in both Covid-19 hospitals, field hospitals and ICUs for severe cases, he added.

Nguyen Truong Son, deputy minister of health, said the ministry would mobilize over 8,300 medical workers and students from hospitals and medical schools across the country to HCMC within this week. By July 16, HCMC would have at least 400 doctors and 600 nurses deployed to its field hospitals, with more to come. Around 500 contact tracers are now available through mobilization of students and medical school staff, he added.

The city would also need 200 more doctors and 800-1,000 more nurses specialized in intensive care to help treat severe Covid-19 cases and save those on their deathbeds. The ministry has already worked with hospitals across the entire country to deploy reinforcements to HCMC, Son said.

HCMC’s 15-day social distancing period starting July 9 could potentially be extended should the deadline pass and the coronavirus remain out of control.

Doctor Nguyen Thien Binh is glad, at least for now, that he hasn't had to decide who goes on ventilation and who not, like in similar tragedies reported in various other countries.

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