Deadly new coronavirus variant overwhelms hospitals in Brazil

March 11, 2021
A second wave of COVID-19 is ripping through Brazil, pushing hospitals and ICUs toward collapse and claiming record numbers of daily deaths. — Courtesy photo
A second wave of COVID-19 is ripping through Brazil, pushing hospitals and ICUs toward collapse and claiming record numbers of daily deaths. — Courtesy photo

BRASILIA — A second wave of COVID-19 is ripping through Brazil, pushing hospitals and ICUs toward collapse and claiming record numbers of daily deaths.

While a new variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, many Brazilians continue to defy mask mandates mobility restrictions following the example of President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently said people need to "stop being sissies" and "whining" about the virus.

The consequences of that combination are deadly, experts say. "We are going through the worst-case scenario since the beginning of the pandemic. You just have to look at the trends in the average number of deaths," Gonzalo Vecina Neto, a Sao Paulo University professor of Public Health, recently told Reuters television. "This could have been avoided and the most important factor is gatherings."

Brazil has broken its own record three times this month for number of deaths in a 24-hour period. On Wednesday, Brazil's Health Ministry registered a devastating new high — 2,286 lives lost to the virus. In total, more than 270,000 people are known to have died due to COVID-19, making Brazil's the second-highest national death toll after the United States.

In 22 of Brazil's 26 states, ICU occupancy has surpassed 80 percent. In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, hospital patients must line up to wait for beds as occupancy rates in intensive care units soar past 103 percent. The neighboring state of Santa Catarina has already surpassed 99 percent occupancy and is on the verge of collapsing, as cases surge throughout the state.

One hospital in Santa Catarina's capital, Florianopolis, is already beyond capacity. David Molin, the hospital's head nurse, tells CNN his team is exhausted and overwhelmed.

"I was here during the first wave and it wasn't like this. We are completely overwhelmed, with our occupancy rate at over 100 percent. Many of those patients who are waiting for an ICU don't make it," Molina told CNN during a telephone interview.

Molina and other health care workers blame the recent surge of COVID-19 cases on larges parties and gatherings that began around New Year's Eve and continued through the pre-Lent carnival holiday and into today. Many of these were held in defiance of local city and state restrictions.

Last week, Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Eduardo Paes announced a new curfew for bars and restaurants throughout the city, limiting hours of operation from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm. But hundreds of people stayed out anyway -- 230 curfew-related fines and closures were issued from Friday to Saturday alone, according to the city government. At one bar, more than 200 mostly-maskless partygoers were found at a party that had been going for seven hours, reported CNN affiliate CNN Brasil.

Many municipal and state health officials and lawmakers blame Bolsonaro's government for undermining their efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And the country's National Council of Health Secretaries (CONASS) has asked the federal government to adopt stricter measures to support hospitals and enforce social distancing.

"The health system in Brazil is on the verge of collapse," Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria told CNN's Becky Anderson during a recent interview. "There is no national coordination to combat the pandemic in Brazil. It would be important for the President and the governors to send the same message to the population, but this unfortunately, doesn't happen in Brazil.

The issue of social distancing measures and lockdowns has become a political football in Brazil. While Doria ordered nonessential businesses to close for two weeks in his state last weekend, Bolsonaro claims that such restrictions sink Brazil's economy and lead to an increase of suicides and depression. He has made disobeying health guidance a point of pride, congratulating agricultural workers at an event last week for not staying home "like cowards."

"We have to face our problems. Stop being sissies, enough whining, how long are they going to keep on crying? We have to confront the problems, respecting the elderly, those with illnesses, chronic conditions. But where is Brazil going to end up if we all stop?" he said.

This week, Bolsonaro declared that he had the "power" to declare a national lockdown — but would never do so. "My army is not going to force the people to stay at home," he said.

Fears over new variant

With Brazilian hospitals overloaded and government officials divided over lockdown measures, the country has few defenses against a coronavirus variant that may be even more contagious.

A preprint of a new modelling study by researchers in Brazil and the UK suggests the variant first detected in the northern city of Manaus late last year, known as P.1, may be up to 2.2 times more transmissible.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, suggests that even people who have already had the coronavirus could be vulnerable. The same study showed that the P.1 variant could evade immunity from previous COVID-19 infection by up to 61 percent.

That variant is now prevalent in COVID-19 patients across at least six Brazilian states, according to a study earlier this month released by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a Brazilian Ministry of Health research institution. P.1 has also been detected in the United States, United Kingdom and neighboring Venezuela.

"The emergence of new variants, which combine both the potential to be more transmissible and the absence of broad and articulated mitigation and suppression measures, are highly worrisome," the study's authors wrote, urging Brazil to encourage behaviors that limit the viral spread.

"The data showing the prevalence of this variant in several states and its ample spread throughout the country, as well as the challenges presented due to its high level of transmission, reinforce the immediate need to adopt non-pharmaceutical measures in order to reduce the speed or its spread and the increases in cases." — Courtesy CNN

March 11, 2021
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