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Hospital In Mexico City Reaching Breaking Point

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Latin America is having a deadly second surge of the coronavirus. Mexico City officials have closed down all nonessential businesses and are pleading with citizens to stay home and not hold holiday gatherings. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, these orders may have come late.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Dr. Miguel Angel Carmona just got off a 24-hour shift and is in front of the Juarez Hospital in Mexico City. His eyes are puffy.

MIGUEL ANGEL CARMONA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The exhausted 27-year-old resident says, "admissions have soared in the past month. There are more patients than beds." When he's not at the hospital, he makes house calls to as many as 15 patients a day.

CARMONA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says he went to see one patient recently and saw her oxygen level dangerously low. And just as he started his exam, she took a deep breath and died. Carmona says relatives are struggling to care for loved ones at home. Many fear government-run hospitals. Many more are getting turned away.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

KAHN: Angel Peredo says just the other day, his uncle, who has COVID, took a turn for the worse. He got him in a car and took him to a Mexico City hospital but were told there was no room.

ANGEL PEREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Same thing happened at the next one and same thing at the next one." Peredo says four hospitals turned them away.

(SOUNDBITE OF OXYGEN TANKS CLANKING)

KAHN: Now, he's in a long line hoping to get his uncle's oxygen tank refilled. This is one of several stores selling oxygen along a busy highway heading out of Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK LIFT RISING)

KAHN: All around Peredo, workers hauled dozens of empty tanks onto a truck that's supposed to take them to get refilled. One of the oxygen stores of the highway was turning away clients. Their truck full of tanks was just robbed. Peredo says, sometimes, he comes here, and they're out too.

PEREDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "As long as we have oxygen, my uncle is stable. But without it, who knows what will happen," he says. Cases in and around Mexico City began rising in the fall. By late November, Mexico City's mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, was pleading for people to stay home. She aired this video on December 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

CLAUDIA SHEINBAUM: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "No fiestas, no Christmas posada parties and no gatherings with friends or families," urged Sheinbaum. But it wasn't until December 18 that the government finally declared the capital a red zone, forcing a shutdown of all nonessential businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

KAHN: Police officer Gabriel Garrido tries to stop crowds from gathering on this busy street corner in Mexico City's historic center.

GABRIEL GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says even with nearly everything closed, people still want to come downtown during the holidays.

GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They just don't get it," he says. "We have to take these actions because of the pandemic." But critics say the government waited too long to close down the capital. Mexico's president repeatedly rails against measures that would hurt the economy. He's called shutdowns the work of authoritarians and dictators.

Outside the huge Juarez Hospital, Dr. Miguel Angel Carmona says the capital and surrounding suburbs should've shut down in November when beds filled up and supplies started running out.

CARMONA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Administrators declared red inside the hospital and imposed stricter rules," he says. "But outside, authorities kept things the same." He's worried about what happens after the holidays. His fear is shared by researchers at Stanford University and the CIDE Research Center here. They predict hospital capacity will be completely overwhelmed by the middle of next month.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.