Mounting coronavirus cases test Spain's health system, ice-rink morgue opens

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain reported its sharpest daily increase in coronavirus cases on Tuesday with infections rising among health workers, while funeral vans began arriving at Madrid’s ice rink, hastily transformed into a makeshift morgue.

The Health Ministry reported around 6,600 new cases and 500 deaths overnight. With nearly 40,000 cases and 2,696 deaths, Spain is Europe’s worst-hit country after Italy.

Around 14% of all infections are among health workers, which health emergency chief Fernando Simon attributed to the limited availability of protective equipment and several early clusters of the virus occurring in hospitals.

He also warned pressure on intensive-care units would continue after transmission of the virus among the general population had peaked.

Echoing his concerns, nursing union SATSE called for test kits and for drastic measures to help prop up Madrid’s hospitals, which it said were on “the verge of collapse”.

Authorities in the Spanish capital on Monday agreed to transform the Palacio de Hielo mall, home to an Olympic-sized ice rink, into a morgue.

The military disinfected 179 nursing homes on Monday and planned to clean another 96 on Tuesday, officials said.

The state prosecutor has opened an investigation after Defence Minister Margarita Robles said the army had found unattended bodies at nursing homes. She did not say what had caused their deaths.

In the southern region of Andalusia, the mayor of a small town pleaded for help after reporting 38 of 42 residents at the local nursing home had tested positive for the virus, along with 60% of staff.

“The virus doesn’t kill people … what’s killing people is the system,” Rafael Aguilera, mayor of Alcala del Valle told a news conference.

“We need oxygen, ambulances and hospitals,” he said in a video posted on the town’s Facebook page. “A person died in our arms because we couldn’t get hold of oxygen.”

While Madrid long accounted for around half of Spain’s coronavirus cases, data published on Tuesday showed it now had just under a third of the total, in a sign that the epidemic is spreading throughout the country.

Spanish airport operator Aena said it would close most terminals at Madrid and Barcelona’s main airports in response to plummeting demand.

Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos said traffic through Aena’s airports had fallen by 82% since the state of emergency was enforced on March 14.

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