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Story Publication logo July 22, 2020

It’s Hard to Breathe in Maracaibo

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People wearing protective masks while waiting for turns to enter a supermarket during the COVID-19 pandemic in Caracas. Venezuela, 2020. Image by Edgloris Marys / Shutterstock.
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Prodavinci, the premier digital outlet in Venezuela for explanatory journalism, is using data...

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Image by Luis Bravo/AFP. Venezuela, 2020.
Image by Luis Bravo/AFP. Venezuela, 2020.

When she woke up the next morning, Joselin heard the same noises of the night: the metallic sound of oxygen cylinders, the gasping of those who could not breathe, the vomiting cough of those who couldn’t breathe.

She was confined to an office of the Dermatology, Rheumatology and Immunology Unit (UDRI), at the University Hospital of Maracaibo, where they once offered consultations. It had now been arranged for COVID-19 patients and those suspected of having it. Joselin saw children and adults in the same room. In beds or in chairs. There were asymptomatic patients who tested positive on rapid tests, patients who had mild symptoms, and patients who needed ventilation. Others waited for the discharge order to go home.

That morning Joselin did not have breakfast or lunch with the rice with grains that they offered her in the hospital. It disgusted her. Some friends brought her food. When it seemed that the day was going to be the same as the day before, she heard a voice through the door:

"I'm here for the doctors I'm taking to the hotel."

In late May, a group of emergency room residents cared for a patient admitted with pancreatitis. He had a fever and had difficulty breathing. Although the symptoms were associated with the reason for the emergency, the residents were skeptical and performed a rapid COVID-19 test. Negative. Internal medicine took over the case and the residents forgot about it.

Until one of the group members got a fever. She thought it was a normal flu, but that changed when the fever did not stop for ten days. While on duty at the hospital, she implored several of her bosses to give her a test to rule out COVID-19. Epidemiology told her that she did not have the symptomatic criteria for the virus, "a fever for so many days is not a coronavirus." An internist thought tuberculosis was more likely. The resident insisted: “They aren't going to test me, a person who works with ER patients? It is a war to get myself a mask and the one they give me is for 24 hours.”

Several doctors debated the case. They agreed to take a rapid test that came out negative. The resident asked to have a PCR sample taken. Again the situation turned into a dispute. "You don't have the medical criteria," they repeated.

Next to her was the head of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), who was getting a PCR sample taken because he had been having body aches for two days. The resident asked why the ICU chief was able to get a sample taken and not her, when he had had discomfort for two days and she had a fever for ten. At the end of a long debate, the PCR sample was taken.

The positive result came five days later. The epidemiologist ordered PCR tests for the rest of the group of five residents. None of which had symptoms. Four were sent to home isolation. The resident with fever was taken to the seventh floor. Joselin remained isolated in a UDRI office.

That’s why Joselin was surprised when they said they were coming for the doctors. She warned her fellow residents. None knew what was happening. She tried to stall. At that moment she received a call. It was one of her bosses, who also didn't know why she was going to be transferred. "I'm going to find out," she said.

Joselin heard someone knock on her door: "Doctor, get your things ready. We have to go."

"Who gave the order?"

"The epidemiologist. I have to take all the doctors to the Las Montañas hotel.”

Before leaving, they took a PCR sample; then they transferred her in an ambulance to the entrance of the hospital. They sprayed chlorine from head to toe. They told her that when she entered the bus, she would distance herself from the other patients. She would be gone for fourteen days, or so they said.

Joselin cried the whole way. The bus stopped in a dark area. She noted that only the ground floor of the motel was lit. She thought that when she went to sleep that the heat would be overwhelming. Lining up at the check-in desk, she heard that the motel had an electric generator but for some reason there was no light in the rooms. In front of her was a woman who said she worked at the Las Pulgas market. “How strange. My husband has symptoms and his rapid test was negative. I have no symptoms and I tested positive.”

To continue reading this story in Spanish, click here.

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