On the front lines of Europe’s surging 2nd COVID crisis: Reporter’s Notebook

I’ve just left the intensive care unit of a hospital in Liege, Belgium. It’s impossible to know of course, but this is quite possibly the epicenter of Europe’s new coronavirus crisis.



a person standing in front of a refrigerator: A health worker standing in an intensive care unit treats a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.


© Yves Herman/Reuters
A health worker standing in an intensive care unit treats a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.

The city of about 200,000 residents nestled in eastern Belgium is at around a 41% infection rate, and the hospital is at full capacity. Intensive care unit numbers have tripled in three weeks. Belgium, which had 100 to 200 cases per day throughout June and early July, is now marking north of 10,000. On Oct. 25, it set a daily record with 17,709.

We stood outside one room — which patients are now forced to share due to overcrowding — to hear the groans of an elderly man who was just admitted. As doctors and nurses attended to him another ambulance swept up outside the window with another case.

MORE: Europe struggling with 2nd surge of COVID-19 case, and it may be worse than the 1st

The doctor guiding us on a tour admitted a chilling fact: health workers here (including himself) are now treating patients knowing they themselves have COVID-19.



a group of people standing in a room: Health workers take care of patients suffering from the coronavirus disease in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for COVID-19 patients, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.


© Yves Herman/Reuters
Health workers take care of patients suffering from the coronavirus disease in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for COVID-19 patients, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.



a person taking a selfie in a room: A health worker looks on in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for patients suffering the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.


© Yves Herman/Reuters
A health worker looks on in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for patients suffering the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.

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It’s an ethical dilemma, but not a choice this doctor could make. He now tests negative, but he said if he and others like him do not continue working, the health system here would go under. The toll on health workers, already exhausted from the first wave, about to be exacerbated by the second.

Why is it so bad? COVID fatigue, he says. Belgium relaxed the measures that had kept the country safe and now are going to pay a price. Lots of testing, yes. But not so much tracing.

MORE: Further restrictions, curfews imposed in Europe as continent fights ‘second wave’ of coronavirus cases

But they have learned some important lessons from the first wave.



A health worker picks up utensils in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for patients suffering the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.


© Yves Herman/Reuters
A health worker picks up utensils in a recovery room of an operating theatre transformed for patients suffering the coronavirus disease, at Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, Belgium, Oct. 29, 2020.



a close up of a woman: A woman takes part in a demonstration at the hospital MontLegia, in Liege, gathering employees, and called by the Belgian trade union National Center of Employees, on Oct. 29, 2020 as the country faces a second wave of infections from COVID-19.


© John Thys/AFP via Getty Images
A woman takes part in a demonstration at the hospital MontLegia, in Liege, gathering employees, and called by the Belgian trade union National Center of Employees, on Oct. 29, 2020 as the country faces a second wave of infections from COVID-19.

We came across Florent, a 75-year-old man in the ICU who said

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People have also begun complaining about long wait times.

“There is some disbelief that you’ve had six months to prepare for this and why haven’t you been training more nurses,” said Dr. Tamás Szakmany, an intensive care doctor in Newport, Wales. But, he said, “it’s not just like you’ve got a car factory and you suddenly need more transmissions, so you train the factory workers to build more transmissions. It’s just not that simple.”

Among doctors and nurses, a sense of battle fatigue has set in. Extra weekend shifts that were intended to be temporary have lasted through the summer, especially in northern cities where coronavirus wards remained busy even as a national lockdown was lifted in the summer. Health workers are calling in sick, many of them with anxiety and depression.

Rapid testing remains scarce for doctors and nurses. And health workers on coronavirus wards are supplied only with basic surgical masks, not the heavier-duty N-95 masks reserved for intensive care units.

“The first time around, it’s almost like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of medical challenge,” said Paul Whitaker, a respiratory doctor in Bradford, in northern England, where the number of coronavirus patients has returned to its early May peak.

“The hospital provided packed lunches for us all,” Dr. Whitaker added. “People were sending good luck messages. But the prospect of going into another six months, which is almost certainly what it’s going to be, is relatively frightening. How are you going to maintain the morale, the focus and the energy of all these people?”

In the ex-mining and manufacturing towns in England’s north that have been hit hardest by the latest surge of infections, doctors are especially harried. Nearly 40 percent of critically ill patients are now classified as the country’s most deprived, compared to a quarter of such patients in the spring and early summer.

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