Doctors, nurses and other medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic in Italy and Spain are succumbing to the respiratory illness themselves in ever increasing numbers, leading many to complain about inadequate protective equipment and supplies.
The two hardest-hit countries in Europe have together recorded more than 17,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as of Monday.
“We were already overloaded before this crisis, and now you have to add the emotional overload,” Alda Recas, president of Madrid's Association of Independent Nurses, told NBC News. “We haven’t seen a situation like this one in all of our lives and careers."
She added that a lack of health care supplies was “a general problem at all hospitals and health centers right now.”
Officials in Spain have not revealed how many, if any, medical workers have died from the coronavirus, but in his most recent briefing about the subject, Fernando Simon, the head of the country's emergency coordination center, said Friday that 9,444 had contracted it. Just six days earlier, the toll stood at 3,475.
This meant they accounted for 12 percent of all cases in Spain.
Recas said she thought the real percentage was much higher.
“I have colleagues who have been waiting five days to get tested,” she said, adding that doctors and nurses who have been infected were “feeling guilty,” because they were not able to help patients during the crisis and worried about passing the virus to their families.
Miguel Guirao, an anaesthetist who works in the intensive care unit at Hospital Universitario La Paz in Madrid, said the high number of medical workers infected in Spain has left many of his colleagues concerned.
“We are trying to protect ourselves the best we can,” said Guirao, 27. “Not just for ourselves, but for our families and other patients.”
He added that doctors who get infected were forced to isolate themselves for three weeks, leaving their colleagues to pick up the slack and decreasing the number of people they can treat.
“These numbers must make us think about what happened to have so many medical staff infected,” Guirao said, adding that a lack of protective equipment, unreliable testing and asymptomatic spread were all likely responsible.
In Italy, the country’s National Institute of Health said Monday that 8,358 health workers have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, nearly nine percent of the total number of infected nationwide.
A total of 61 medical workers have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak, according to the Italian Federation of Medical Professional Associations.
The situation is so dire that, Doctors Without Borders has sent a team of doctors, nurses and hygiene experts to the town of Codogno, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region, where the first case of the disease was detected in the country.
Instead of treating patients, they are there solely to help protect hospital staff, health care workers and cleaning teams.
“We’re helping them to fight the pandemic safely, so they can continue their work taking care of all patients, those affected by COVID-19 and all other patients who need treatment,” said Carlotta Berutto, a nurse and coordinator with the intervention team in Codogno.
“With all that the hospital staff must do to care for the patients, they have little time to think about themselves," she said.