LONDON – The pandemic is gaining momentum in the UK, fed by a mutant strain of Covid-19, and health workers in the country are paying a hefty price.
The virus has already killed more than 76,000 people in the UK – the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth worst in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of hospitalizations is reaching new heights.
Another 68,053 confirmed cases were announced by the government on Friday – the highest figure in a day so far – making it the eleventh consecutive day that more than 50,000 new cases have been reported.
Schischa, 39, said emergency calls from people confirmed or suspected of having Covid-19 had “exploded exponentially” compared to even a week or two ago.
Shisha said he had seen patients wait in ambulances for hours while the hospital had enough space for them. One patient he took waited six hours in front of a hospital the day before, he said.
“This is just an example of what is happening right now. And it’s the same everywhere – London, Kent, Essex,” Shisha said, referring to the counties in the South East of England, which are among the worst affected. “It’s like a war zone again.”
The worsening crisis and the news of the new strain are having a psychological impact. He is tormented by the thought of taking the virus home to his family. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Britain and Scotland have entered new national blockades to curb the spread of the mutant strain and try to prevent Britain’s tax-funded National Health Service from collapsing on Monday.
“Our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid-19 than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announcing the new restrictions.
By Friday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan had announced a “major incident” in hospitals in the capital and acknowledged that health services were “at risk of being overwhelmed”. Hospitals will be left without beds for two weeks, unless the spread of the virus slows down, he warned.
Download the NBC News app for current news and policies
“Everyone is very stretched. The hospitals are very busy,” said Dr. John Williamson, an anesthesiologist who has been reassigned to help treat patients with Covid-19 in the intensive care unit at Whittington Hospital in north London.
With the ward filled with patients with Covid-19, he said, the latest wave is very similar to what he saw in March; patients arrive very ill and need high-level care.
“Intensive treatment is under constant pressure,” said Williamson, who – with the hospital’s permission – documented the Covid-19 crisis with his camera and posted the results on his Instagram account.
He said he and his colleagues are able to manage the situation by transferring critical patients to other hospitals if they are left without beds. But he worries about what could happen in the coming weeks as hospitalizations and deaths catch up.
“Suddenly you get to the point where they all fail together, and the whole system suddenly reaches capacity,” he said. “The system hasn’t worked yet, but it’s incredibly tight.”
On Monday, British medical officials said many parts of the health system were under enormous pressure, with a significant number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care.
“We are not confident that the NHS can cope with further sustained case growth,” they said in a statement. “Even without further action, there is a significant risk that NHS in several areas will be overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
They don’t just worry about other people’s health.
During the first wave last spring, more health workers died from Covid-19 in the UK than almost anywhere else, according to data collected in July by Amnesty International. The monitoring agency found more than 540 deaths in health and social work in England and Wales – just behind Russia.
And nearly 60 per cent of doctors suffer from some form of anxiety or depression, with 46 per cent saying their condition has worsened since the pandemic began, according to a study published last week by the British Medical Association.
Nearly 70 percent say levels of fatigue and exhaustion are higher than normal as they deal with record daily cases and a growing backlog of care.
The NHS is facing a “perfect storm” from a huge workload and staff burnout, warned the association’s board chairman, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, on Monday.
“The doctors are desperate,” he said.
An NHS England spokesman said in an e-mail on Monday that the rise in Covid-19 cases across the country means all hospitals remain “extremely busy”.
Dr. Rachel Clark, a palliative care specialist at a hospital in Oxfordshire, north-west London, recalls being horrified by images coming from New York in April of congested hospitals and people being treated in tents outside.
“I feel like we’re living in that world to some extent now,” says Clark, 48. “We don’t have patients in tents, but we have patients who are locked up in ambulances sitting outside the hospital because he can’t physically put them in the hospital. “
Clark said her hospital staff was in distress and exhausted, with many experiencing symptoms of first-wave post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They are in the same situation again,” she said. “You see patient after patient with the same symptoms, the same disease, over and over again. And sometimes you talk to them, knowing that there’s a very real chance they’ll be dead in the morning. It’s so painful to be in this situation a second time.”
Dr. Julia Grace Patterson, a psychiatrist who runs the doctor-led advocacy organization EveryDoctor, said she was concerned about the mental health of the first responders to experience the trauma of the early days of the pandemic.
“There really wasn’t a period of denial or release or the ability to process any of these things,” Patterson said.
Healthcare workers have never relaxed between the peaks of the pandemic, as they have caught up with operations and appointments that were postponed or canceled during the first wave. “There really was no rest for them,” she said.
Adding another layer of disaster is the amount of misinformation, said Clark, who regularly tweets about what she sees on the front lines.
“From people who say you’re a liar, it’s a ‘scam’, it’s not real and you’re a disgrace,” she said. “I was threatened with death and rape because I stood up and said how serious Covid-19 was.”
But even though they are tired and desperate to be different, she said healthcare professionals continue to pull their scrubs and put patients first – over and over again.
“They give everything they have to patients,” Clark said.