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Hospitals in the Philippines struggle under influx of COVID-19 patients


In September, the Philippines saw one-fifth of all the infections the country has reported since the start of the pandemic. NPR's international correspondent Julie McCarthy has this look at how the Philippines is coping.


JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Inside the Philippine General Hospital, the country's largest, a gurney bearing a man rattles out of the ER headed for the COVID ward. He's one of the lucky ones. Outside, scores of sick Filipinos queue on benches stretching all the way down the long Manila block. Across the street beneath a metal canopy, hospital staff triage the throng waiting for care. Inside, chirping monitors fill an intensive care unit. Resident Dr. Andrew Villafuerte recorded the sounds in the off-limits ICU where nurses assist intubated patients...


MCCARTHY: ...Fighting for their lives. It's a scene replicated across the country, where the ICU occupancy rate is 77% - considered high risk. With daily cases topping 20,000, Johns Hopkins reports that in recent weeks, the Philippines clocked more than a half a million cases.

GENE NISPEROS: It's telling us that the disease is spreading faster than it ever did in the history of the pandemic in the country.

MCCARTHY: That's Dr. Gene Nisperos, who teaches at Philippine General Hospital. He notes, in the surge, the positivity rate soared to 30% - 1 in 3 people testing positive indicates high transmission - and that there are likely more people with the coronavirus who have not been tested yet.

NISPEROS: We're really not testing enough. We're testing 70,000 a day when we should be testing maybe 250,000 to 300,000 And if we actually do test 250,000, 300,000 per day, how many positives do we have? Definitely not just 20,000 a day.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Hosanna in the highest.

MCCARTHY: Nuns of the Religious of the Virgin Mary huddle around a Facebook Live Catholic Mass. During this surge, they've avoided in-person services. Last Saturday, the congregation directress, Sister Anicia, announced the death of a 10th elderly nun diagnosed with COVID-19. She explains that the virus infiltrated St. Joseph Home in their Manila compound, which houses the oldest nuns, who were thought to be protected.

ANICIA: We ourselves would not go there to St. Joseph Home. All the sisters were not allowed to go there. But the point is among the houses here, St. Joseph Home is the most restricted place. And it is the one that had the outbreak.

MCCARTHY: By mid-September, 62 sisters and 52 lay personnel tested positive. Sister Anicia says her congregation is now sharing the pains of the world.

ANICIA: It is more like an opportunity for us to exercise greater charity and solidarity with one another. We are certainly affected in many ways, but we are people of faith and hope.

MCCARTHY: Others hanging on hope and faith are the country's doctors and nurses. Dr. Nisperos says they are exhausted. He says the government failed to provide a pipeline of new workers who could replenish the system by offering more than the nurses' standard pay of $600 a month.

NISPEROS: The entire government has been too slow and too timid. And if you're going to ask nurses to, you know, to join a hospital and be put in COVID wards or put yourself in the line of fire, what you're offering is not enough. It's not enough incentive for them to actually come in.

MCCARTHY: Nisperos says shortages of basic equipment abound. Critical medications in short supply are being sold at exorbitant prices. But authorities say infections are declining, and millions of doses of vaccine are due to arrive in the coming months. However, with the general public just beginning to be vaccinated, the outlook for the Philippines is for a prolonged pandemic.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.

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