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ARGENTINA | 29-08-2020 08:52

Virus surge pushes Jujuy’s health system to brink of collapse

Doctors in the northern region warn hospitals are in a “critical” situation, with high bed occupancy in ICU units.

After more than 100 days of freedom from Covid-19, the northern province of Jujuy is suffering an exponential increase in cases, including among its top authorities, which has brought its health system to the brink of collapse.

The region, which borders on Bolivia, has now become one of Argentina’s biggest areas of concern from the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The situation is critical. We have 93 percent of the intensive therapy beds occupied by people from the hinterland of the province. In two or three weeks it will peak in San Salvador [de Jujuy, the provincial capital]. We are preparing for a collapse," Sergio Barrera Ruiz, a doctor at Wenceslao Gallardo Hospital in Palpalá and a leading figure from the national medical association (AMRA, in its Spanish acronym) told AFP recently.

Last week, Marcelo Villa, the director of the Guillermo Paterson Hospital in San Pedro, the province’s second-largest city, said his hospital was on the verge of collapse. 

"Everyone is at work in the hospital, every day, fundamentally the emergency and walk-in clinic areas are at 100 percent. We are in a complicated situation," he said.

Jujuy has already reported several thousand cases with around 200 deaths, despite having a total of just six cases as recently as June 10. The month of July alone saw 2,347 individuals test positive for Covid-19.

With some 719,000 inhabitants (less than two percent of Argentina’s total population), the impoverished region nevertheless lags behind the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA), a region of 15 million which accounts for more than 80 percent of all cases.

As of last Sunday, Jujuy had a tally of 789 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, ranking only below Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires Province and Tierra del Fuego.

Red zones

With around 450 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and 30 percent of its health workers infected, Jujuy lacks doctors specialising in intensive care, protective material, intensive therapy beds, oxygen and artificial respirators, Barrera Ruiz said.

The province has twice been reinforced by health professionals and the provincial government is offering doctors contracts of 200,000 pesos for a fortnight’s work, over triple the average monthly salary for that job.

 "We relaxed in Jujuy. We hope never to have to choose who gets the oxygen or respirator. If we continue with this attitude, we’re going to have to start deciding," Villa, who tested positive for the virus himself, told Radio 10.

With one in every 67 inhabitants infected, Ledesma is the department in most trouble, followed by Susques and Humahuaca, three of the province’s "red zones."

Ledesma is the location of the sugar refinery belonging to the powerful Blaquier family, who never interrupted production despite 300 cases of coronavirus contagion and 10 deaths among its 3,150 workers. 

Another focus is in Susques, an underpopulated mining region where lithium extraction did not halt either.

In the region’s famed Quebrada de Humahuaca canyon, now absent of tourists, the small hospital of Tilcara has collapsed. Earlier this month, León Gieco teamed up with dozens of other musicians, to play an online benefit concert on its behalf.

Officials not spared

The virus has even reached the highest sectors of the provincial government, including Governor Gerardo Morales and his Lieutenant-Governor Carlos Haquim, who both belong to the Juntos por el Cambio coalition which backed ex-president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019). Sectors of the opposition have supported recent demonstrations against quarantine and the government.

Social organisations, trade unions and some politicians in Jujuy last week have President Alberto Fernández to place the province under a "trusteeship directly and immediately to take over the leadership of the public health system,” holding Morales, who has served as governor since 2015, responsible for the sanitary situation.

The possibility of a trusteeship was rejected by the provincial government."It’s complicated but the situation is under control," said Senator Silvia Giacoppo (Juntos por el Cambio-Jujuy).

On June 3, Governor Morales paid a visit to the frontier city of La Quiaca accompanied by a dozen officials escorted by around 30 policemen. During the visit, two of the policemen crossed over to the Bolivian city of Villazón to buy coca leaves.

It was a fatal day for the spread of coronavirus in Jujuy. These two policemen infected the others who afterwards spread it all over the province.


San Juan tightens restrictions

Argentina’s western province of San Juan is one of the least affected by coronavirus. On August 10 it became the first province where schoolchildren returned to classrooms, closed since the commencement of quarantine in Argentina on March 20.

Nevertheless, with 28 cases of contagion confirmed in 48 hours last week, bringing the total up to 52, Governor Sergio Uñac on August 21 announced the return to the first and strictest phase of preventive social isolation for the next fortnight throughout the region.


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by – TIMES/AFP [Original reporting by AFP’s Liliana Samuel]


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