MEXICO CITY — Pushing through a hospital waiting room crowded with anxious relatives, nurse Gisela Bernal signed off from a 12-hour shift working with coughing swine flu victims.
“I haven’t had a single day off since this epidemic started. I’m exhausted,” said Bernal, wiping sweat from her brow above a blue face mask. “I want to help all these people. But I just don’t know how long I can carry on.”
Morale is low at Mexico’s hospitals among much of the medical staff, who are responsible for treating a growing number of patients for symptoms from the H1N1 virus — a new strain of flu that mixes features of avian, swine and human viruses.
On Thursday, about 1,500 people were in hospital beds across Mexico with symptoms that appeared to be from the swine flu virus, an eight-fold increase compared with a week ago. The vast majority had not been confirmed as having the swine flu, as Mexican labs do not have the capability to verify the mutant virus.
The government said 176 people had died from what appears to be the disease, although only eight cases have been confirmed.
The influx of patients has put mounting pressure on Mexico’s hospital facilities, where nurses complain they being overworked and put in danger of catching the virus themselves.
At Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Diseases, about 20 nurses and other employees treating patients with severe swine flu cases poured out of the hospital to talk to journalists on several occasions this week.
The nurses complained that amid the turmoil, basic safety procedures were being ignored — such as the use of face masks.
“This is a high-risk environment and they need to give us safety equipment. But they are not doing it,” said nurse Irma de Jesus, waving her hands in despair. “This is generating a lot of fear and panic among the staff.”
The flu prompted a run on face masks: Many members of the public are wearing masks on city streets, buses and subways. But now, the safety items have been completely sold out in many shops and warehouses.
Health Secretary Jose Cordova said the authorities were planning to import another 20 million masks from outside Mexico.
But hospital worker Vicente Ochoa said that authorities needed to act immediately.
“They have to take us into account and all we are risking with this work. If they don’t then we will just fold our arms and stop working,” Ochoa said.
In response to the protests, the hospital released a written statement assuring that safety procedures would be followed.
Cordova conceded that the virus had been a huge challenge to health officials.
He says the health department did have a contingency plan to deal with an outbreak such as this — the plan included the stockpiling of anti-viral drugs, which are now being used on sufferers.
But, he argued, it was a new disease that would present problems for any health department the world over.
"We never had this kind of epidemic in the world," he told a news conference. "This is the first time we have this kind of virus."
The biggest fear is that the number of flu patients could grow exponentially — to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands — and overwhelm already overworked hospital staff.
The Mexican government has ordered a shutdown of public places across the country, including schools, theaters and museums, to stop the virus spreading.
On Thursday, the government also announced that there would be a shutdown of all “non-essential” workplaces from May 1 through May 5, coinciding with the May 1 holiday and weekend.
Outside the clinic, 42-year-old Reyna Hernandez waited for her husband, who for 18 days had been suffering from what now appeared to have been swine flu.
She said she trusted the staff and did not complain about the service, even though her husband had initially been misdiagnosed and was now unconscious and fighting for his life.
“I believe the doctors and nurses are doing the best they can,” she said, beneath a blue face mask. “This is just a very painful ordeal for all of us and it is hard for everyone to cope.”
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