Nicolle Yapur and Patricia Laya
ICUs have waiting lists and clinics setting up makeshift wards
Official numbers aren’t budging despite what clinics report
For the past year, Venezuela has been a coronavirus conundrum — surrounded by countries where the pandemic has slaughtered mercilessly, it’s been mostly spared. While government data is utterly unreliable, Covid has unquestionably taken a light toll.
Official numbers remain suspiciously low — an average of 460 new cases and five deaths a day in a country of 30 million — but other indicators are starting to flash red. ICUs suddenly have waiting lists and clinics are opening makeshift wards. Even President Nicolas Maduro said there is a “tremendous rise” in cases.
“If the patient flow we are seeing right now at emergency rooms continues, we’ll be in a much more critical condition,” epidemiologist Julio Castro said during a recent webcast. A peak is expected in the coming week or two, he added.
The rise follows the return to Caracas of thousands of beach-goers after a four-day carnival holiday in mid-February.
“I call it ‘the carnival strain,’” said Dr. Herman Scholtz, president of La Trinidad Medical Center in eastern Caracas, which has 60 Covid patients — its maximum capacity — up from six less than three weeks ago.
A worker at a private lab, who isn’t authorized to speak publicy and tests a handful of patients a day, said positive cases nearly tripled in the past week.
Serious cases now make up a third of all detected, six times what they were in November, according to Dr. Felix Oletta, a former health minister, referring to official data. He added that mild or asymptomatic cases are probably going unnoticed because they’re growing at a much slower pace.
President Maduro said he was worried about Caracas during a national address on Sunday, a day after receiving the Sputnik-V vaccine from Russia, and ordered additional lockdown measures.
Venezuela has reported a total of 143,000 Covid-19 infections, almost certainly below the real number but still a fraction of neighboring nations such as Colombia, about to hit 2.3 million. Vaccinations began nearly three weeks ago, though no data has been released about the number administered.
While an early lockdown and strict quarantine probably subdued contagion at first, the invisible jump in cases adds to serious underreporting claims in Venezuela, where limited testing and an economic emergency may have helped mask the toll of the virus.
The health ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The last time there was a spike was in August, when the government reported as many as 1,200 cases a day. Doctors are referring to the current increase as a second wave.
At Caracas’ University Hospital, they’ve drawn up a wait-list for intensive care beds for the first time in months, according to health workers there, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
Since only state labs are officially allowed to process Covid tests, the results from private hospitals and labs aren’t counted in the official toll. A lack of sample kits at public hospitals means only the sickest patients get tested.
“The government is contradicting itself,” said Dr. German Cortez, president of Santa Sofia, a small private clinic in Caracas which is also at full capacity. “If you only follow the official statistics, there is no reason to radicalize the lockdown. We can’t plan without information.”