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As virus spikes, Europe runs low on ICU beds, hospital staff

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The virus is now everywhere in France, making transfers from one region to another.

In Italy lines of ambulances park outside hospitals awaiting beds, and in France the government coronavirus tracking app prominently displays the intensive care capacity taken up by COVID-19 patients: 92.5% and rising.

In the ICU in Barcelona, there is no end in sight for the doctors and nurses who endured this once already.

Intensive care is the last line of defence for severely ill coronavirus patients and Europe is running out — of beds and the doctors and nurses to staff them.

In country after country, the intensive care burden of COVID-19 patients is nearing and sometimes surpassing levels seen at last spring’s peak.

Health officials, many advocating a return to stricter lockdowns, warn that adding beds will do no good because there aren’t enough doctors and nurses trained to staff them.

In France, more than 7,000 health care workers have undergone training since last spring in intensive care techniques. Nursing students, interns, paramedics, all have been drafted, according to Health Minister Olivier Veran.

If the mobilization is well and truly there, it is not infinite, he said last week, when the ICU units were filled to 85% capacity. It is not enough.

Within days, it had jumped another 7 percentage points and he warned it would continue to tick upward. And, unlike in the first wave last spring, the virus is now everywhere in France, making transfers from one region to another by high-speed train less practical.

One hospital in the southern city of Marseille recently wheeled in refrigerated rental trucks ahead of a feared rise in ICU deaths there.

In Italy, Filippo Anelli, the head of the national doctors’ association, said at the current infection rate, there soon won’t be enough physicians to go around.

Recently in Naples, nurses started checking on people as they sat in cars outside emergency rooms, waiting for space to free up. Italy has a total of 11,000 ICU beds, but only enough anesthesiologists for 5,000 patients, Anelli said.

As of Monday, 2,849 ICU beds were filled nationwide — up 100 from just the day before.

For the average coronavirus patient with serious symptoms, it takes seven to 10 days to go from infection to hospitalization. Those admitted often need to stay for weeks, even as more patients arrive. The math is inexorable as long as infection rates rise.

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