KARACHI, Pakistan 

With hospitals overwhelmed and a sharp rise in the number of deaths, Pakistan’s delicate health system is bracing for an imminent peak of coronavirus cases.

Numbers here have already surpassed China, the origin of the novel virus.

Government officials claim the situation is “under control,” but health authorities believe the already stretched health system is unable to handle the lurking influx of COVID-19 patients.

In the country’s two most populous cities of Karachi and Lahore, hospitals are already struggling because of a sharp increase in COVID-19 patients in recent weeks.

Some major private hospitals are turning away patients because of the shortage of beds.

“Most of the hospital beds have already taken by patients, limiting our ability to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases, mainly in the big cities,” Dr Faiyaz Alam, an office-bearer of Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA), a nationwide body of medical professionals, told Anadolu Agency.

Hospitals running short of beds

In Karachi, home to more than 15 million people, and epicenter of Pakistan’s COVID-19 epidemic, 15 government, private, and charitable hospitals are dealing with coronavirus patients.

The number of ventilators in those hospitals, according to official figures, are 136.

Just 539 beds and 200 ventilators are available for coronavirus patients in Lahore, according to Yasmeen Rashid, health minister for northeastern Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.

Punjab and southern Sindh provinces, which make up more than 70,100 of nearly the country’s 94,000 cases, have slightly more than 14,000 beds for coronavirus patients at state-run and private hospitals.

“Dozens of [COVID-19] patients are contacting us on daily basis seeking admission to the hospitals. But we cannot help them as the hospitals are already running short of beds, both in general wards and the ICUs [intensive care units],” said Alam.

“If the number of cases continue to surge at the current pace, I am afraid, the hospitals across the country will not be able to handle the situation,” he added.

Dr Muhammad Shamvil Ashraf, an official of the Indus Hospital Karachi, confirmed his facility was already running at “peak capacity.”

“The number of patients are growing way higher than the number of beds. Sometimes, we do not have space to keep the patients in the emergency [ward],” he said. “At this stage, my only advice is follow the safety guidelines because if the numbers continue to grow like this, we won’t be able to handle them.”

Worst is about to come

The country’s COVID-19 tally has reached 93,983 with 1,935 deaths, landing it at the 17th spot in terms of coronavirus cases.

The south Asian nation is the worst hit by the pandemic in the region after India. Apart from several parliamentarians, dozens of doctors and paramedics have died of the coronavirus.

But doctors, who have been opposing the lifting of a prolonged lockdown, fear the worst is about to come.

“June and July are very crucial as we expect a sharp rise in already fast-increasing coronavirus cases in the country,” according to Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of Pakistan Medical Association.

“I don’t foresee good days ahead vis-a-vis coronavirus cases. They are going to shoot up in coming weeks,” he said, cautioning that the country’s already fragile health system might collapse following the expected rise in COVID-19 cases.

In addition to choking health facilities, Sajjad observed, the shortage of trained medical staff is adding to the worsening situation.

“Over 2,200 doctors, nurses, and technicians have already gone into self-isolation after getting infected by the virus across the country. Young doctors with no required experience are being pitched to handle ICUs, and ventilators in several hospitals to bridge this gap, which is not good at all,” he said.

Salman Haseeb, president of Young Doctors Association (YDA) Punjab, echoed Sajjad’s views.

“We are expecting a spike in numbers of patients in mid-June, there is a chance where we have to choose between saving the life of a patient or a doctor,” he said.

Mobile units

The government recently launched a mobile application that provides information about the availability of ventilators in hospitals.

Dr Asad Aslam, a member of the Corona Experts Advisory Group Punjab, said the government is increasing the number of beds and ventilators in state-run hospitals following a possible spike in COVID-19 cases.

“With the increment in numbers of patients, we are increasing the ventilator capacity.

“We have reserved 200 ventilators for critical patients in Lahore alone and will add 100 more by June 30,” Aslam, who is also the head of state-run Mayo Hospital Lahore, told Anadolu Agency.

“At present, we are not facing any disturbing situation vis-a-vis availability of beds or ventilators for the patients,” he claimed.

A Sindh government spokesman said current ventilator occupancy in the province stands at 49%. But Haseeb, the head of the YDA contested that claim.

“The government is fabricating the numbers. Yesterday, a senior anesthetist at Services Hospital [Lahore] died as he could not get a ventilator,” he said.

Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s advisor on health affairs, who effectively acts as health minister, could not be reached despite repeated attempts.

Alam suggested the formation of mobile health units to fight the raging pandemic.

“Hospitals have no more capacity to admit COVID-19 patients. The only option left is to treat them in their homes with the help of mobile health units,” he said.

*Kiran Butt in Lahore have contributed to this report.

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