Lebanon hits dangerous stage of COVID-19 pandemic

A 25-day lockdown, with a long list of exceptions, went into effect January 7, but the exceptions and violations have rendered the measures largely ineffective.
Wednesday 13/01/2021
Members of the Lebanese Red Cross transfer a coronavirus patient to the COVID-19 department of the Nabih Berri university hospital, in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh. (AFP)
Members of the Lebanese Red Cross transfer a coronavirus patient to the COVID-19 department of the Nabih Berri university hospital, in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Lebanon has “entered the dangerous phase” of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the government to declare a state of health emergency and a round-the-clock curfew in an effort to contain a dramatic surge of cases largely blamed on the relaxation of restrictions during end of year holidays.

With daily cases exceeding 5,000 in the week after New Year’s celebrations, hospitals sounded the alarm, warning that they might be forced to turn away patients due to a lack of vacant beds and overwhelmed human resources.

“We have definitely entered the phase of grave danger. If the number of cases remains as high the hospitals will not be able to cope for sure… We need to break this chain of contamination as soon as possible,” said Suleiman Haroun, president of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals.

Some hospitals have turned away COVID-19 patients in peak days while others have treated some in cars in nearby parking lots.

“Hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients are overwhelmed and operating at full capacity. All their intensive care units (ICU) and beds are occupied. Even emergency wards are full, forcing Red Cross ambulances transporting patients to move from hospital to hospital in search of empty beds,” Haroun said.

For days, the Lebanese Red Cross transported hundreds of COVID-19 patients to hospitals where ambulances had to wait hours for them to be moved to available beds.

“When you exceed 1,256 cases in 10 days (mostly in Beirut) you don’t expect hospitals to accommodate all of them. Our operation room was overwhelmed with more than 4,300 calls in 24 hours by people who have breathing difficulties, who needed oxygen canister or medications in addition to those in need for immediate hospital transportation,” said Georges Kettaneh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross.

Haroun pointed out that the syndicate had asked private establishments to set up special units dedicated to treating COVID-19 cases months ago, but while some main hospitals arranged isolated wards, others are unlikely to do so because of financial restraints and a lack of human resources.

“At present, we have some 400 ICU beds and 700 regular beds allocated for COVID-19 patients in private hospitals. But that would not be sufficient if the number of cases continued climbing,” Haroun added.

Under the “state of health emergency” that includes a total lockdown and a round-the-clock curfew between January 14-25, all public and private companies, including commercial banks, as well as places of worship will be closed, with few exemptions to allow the provision of basic services. Bakeries, exchange dealers, money transfer shops, petrol stations and pharmacies will be allowed to open for few hours a day, while supermarkets will only be allowed to provide delivery services.

 A worker carries oxygen canisters to be used by hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, at a factory in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon (Saida). (AP)
 A worker carries oxygen canisters to be used by hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, at a factory in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon (Saida). (AP)

Beirut airport will remain operational at 20% capacity.

“I hope this time the lockdown, unlike previous ones, will be properly implemented otherwise it won’t be effective… We need strict application of confinement measures to stem the tide. Also I fear that 11 days of a total lockdown will not be sufficient. It should be more than that,” Haroun said, attributing the fast spread of the pandemic to relaxed restrictions ahead of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

The government allowed bars and nightclubs, which had been ordered shut for months, to open for end of year celebrations, hoping to boost Lebanon’s crumbling economy.

A 25-day lockdown, with a long list of exceptions, went into effect January 7, but exceptions and violations have rendered them largely ineffective.

Firas Abyad, director of the public Rafic Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), the main hospital caring for COVID-19 patients, estimated that some 30,000 people had contracted the virus in the first 10 days of the New Year, with 120 deaths.

“We have almost 100% occupancy. One or two beds might become available when a patient dies or is discharged. The grave situation at present stems from the fact that the number of patients exceeds the number of beds. The lockdown should help put the medical situation back under control by reducing the number of cases to acceptable levels to enable hospitals to cope,” Abyad said.

“Moreover, the medical team is beginning to wear down. They have been under tremendous pressure since March and cannot take extra workload.”

Lebanon is expected to start receiving COVID-19 vaccines in February, Abyad said.

“We need to vaccinate a certain number of people and wait one month for their immunity to develop before we start seeing some change in the trend. In the meantime we have to rely on non-pharmacological measures including lockdown, distancing and hygiene to contain the disease’s spread,” Abyad added.