SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – A group of Bolivian volunteer health professionals have been providing much-needed relief to hospitals in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, where many health centers are struggling under the weight of a large influx of coronavirus patients.
But these volunteers, known as “COVID Angels,” will now have to find a new location for offering their assistance after they were removed early on Thursday from a school provided to them by Santa Cruz’s interim mayor, Angelica Sosa.
These volunteers told Bolivian media that they respect the decision by municipal authorities, who said that facility was inadequate for treating seriously ill COVID-19 patients, and will now seek to provide their services via mobile brigades.
One of these so-called “COVID Angels,” a young woman named Melany Delgado who had been helping treat COVID-19 patients free of charge at the Colegio Juana Azurduy de Padilla, said the group is fully committed to its mission and will continue to do its part “until the volunteers run out.”
The situation at the improvised health center was far from ideal, with some patients forced to wait in hallways with IV lines taped to their arms in makeshift fashion.
Short of resources, the clinic had functioned since Sunday thanks to the volunteers’ tireless dedication and to donations of medicine and even food.
Delgado said institutional support has been regrettably lacking despite constant complaints about saturated hospitals in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city with a population of more than 1.5 million.
Relatives say the patients were forced to seek treatment at the school-turned clinic after having been turned away by local hospitals but that some have died despite the efforts of the “COVID Angels,” a group made up of general physicians and different specialists, including cardiologists.
Sometimes the medical volunteers even had to offer first aid to patients on the sidewalk, Victor Hugo Nuñez del Prado, a key driver of the initiative, told EFE.
Around 200 patients initially arrived for treatment, but that number later grew to a daily total of around 500 individuals.
Even when patients had to lie on a mattress on a hallway floor, they never went unattended despite institutional indifference, Nuñez del Prado said.
The search for a site to treat patients has been fraught with difficulty, with the group initially being denied access to other schools and fairgrounds before the evacuation of Colegio Juana Azurduy de Padilla, where they used instruments such as thermometers and blood-pressure monitors but still lacked other necessary equipment, the volunteer said.
The situation has been similar in the case of medicines.
The volunteers have been administering some drugs such as Ivermectin – an anti-parasitic that is authorized in Bolivia despite doubts about its effectiveness – as an anti-inflammatory and painkiller.
But they have lacked other medicines and supplements such as antibiotics, Vitamin C and aspirin.
“We’re really overwhelmed. It’s a titanic struggle to save these people,” he said on Wednesday at the school, gesturing to a line of patients accompanied by their family members.
Beds, wheelchairs and many other items are lacking, Nuñez del Prado said then, adding that “heart and guts” are what keep them going.
The volunteers show patients and family members techniques for regulating body temperature and measuring patients’ blood pressure and heart rate so their treatments can continue at home; the group’s doctors also provide consultations via Internet.
The eastern province of Santa Cruz has reported 12,988 confirmed coronavirus cases and 307 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Nationwide, the number of cases and deaths amounts to 21,499 and 697, respectively, according to official figures.