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Family Struggles To Find Hospital Bed As Philippines Faces Severe Pandemic Surge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in the U.S., some parts of the country have more COVID vaccines than people lining up to take them. But elsewhere in the world, the concern is the opposite - not enough vaccines amid spikes in the number of new cases. We heard earlier about the dire situation in India. Now we turn to the Philippines, where a surge in cases is overwhelming hospitals in the capital, Manila, and forcing stricter lockdowns there. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on one family's desperate hunt to find a hospital bed for their COVID-stricken grandfather.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Eighty-year-old Nardo Samson, retired policemen, lay dying in the back of a makeshift ambulance. It was almost Easter. His grandson, Jan Daniel Belmonte, says his grandfather's health took a worrying turn after his entire household of eight family members was diagnosed with the coronavirus and moved to an open air quarantine center. In stifling summertime Manila, the family struggled, but their grandfather couldn't breathe.

JAN DANIEL BELMONTE: And basically, they were just there laying down and trying not to expend energy, just trying to deal with the worsening symptoms that they were experiencing.

MCCARTHY: With his oxygen saturation levels plummeting, his grandfather's accommodations got upgraded to an air-conditioned van.

BELMONTE: And this van just had the oxygen tank that's being used to support his breathing, but he was deteriorating

MCCARTHY: On Good Friday, the family wanted to transfer their grandfather to a hospital where Belmonte's wife, a doctor, worked. It was full. Belmonte feverishly combed social media for a vacancy. His relatives called at least 100 hospitals. They found only waiting lists.

BELMONTE: But most of the wait lists were around 50 people in the queue.

MCCARTHY: One hospital had 250 online, but the family recalled the hospitals, frantic to find a bed.

BELMONTE: That was, I think, the most helpless that I felt in my entire life.

MCCARTHY: Finally, on Easter Sunday, hope. A small private hospital would admit his grandfather, but it took the ambulance two hours to pick him up.

BELMONTE: By the time he got to the hospital, he immediately went into a coma. And he later passed on.

MCCARTHY: So your family found a hospital. And he arrived at the hospital, and essentially, he's gone.

BELMONTE: Too late, yeah.

MCCARTHY: Belmonte's grandfather did not have the benefit of a vaccine. Only about 1% of Filipinos are vaccinated. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. told NPR that his government failed to secure the Pfizer vaccine early on because it had, quote, "dropped the ball." Locsin said he told Secretary of State Antony Blinken...

TEDDY LOCSIN JR: I think we should stop saying that basketball is our national pastime. We don't seem to be very good at this. And he laughed. I said, that's really true.

MCCARTHY: Rich countries have secured vaccines in quantities that far exceed their populations. Critics say such hoarding is indefensible when most of the world lacks access to a vaccine. But the Philippines' top diplomat has a more forgiving position.

LOCSIN: Please don't blame yourselves for over-ordering. When somebody brought it up at a meeting in this government, I said, hey, you, the countries that over-ordered did it because they wanted to protect their people. The countries like us that hemmed and hawed, well, now we're there.

MCCARTHY: But Locsin says, thankfully, there's now an overabundance of vaccine in wealthy countries, and he expects they will share.

LOCSIN: When they have secured their populations and achieved herd immunity, whatever it is they want to call it, it's available now for us. Let's pay for it. What are we saving the money for?

MCCARTHY: Locsin says Moderna, Pfizer and Russia's Gamaleya vaccines are on order but won't arrive until June or July. The Philippines clocked 57,000 new infections the past week. Nearly every bed in emergency departments of major Manila hospitals is occupied, according to the Philippine College of Emergency Medicine, a physicians society. Its president, Dr. Pauline Convocar, says in their 13 medical facilities in Manila, 300 people are waiting in tents.

PAULINE CONVOCAR: There's still patients queuing in our emergency departments as we speak. People were lining up in the tents. And unfortunately, people die in the tents while waiting for the hospital bed.

MCCARTHY: Jan Daniel Belmonte’s grandmother, Estelita, located a bed days after her husband died from the lack of one. But she may lose her house paying the cost of the ICU. Grandson Jan Daniel raised $4,000 online to help with the $20,000 bill. Despite it all, the 27-year-old Belmonte says he came away from the calamity actually feeling fortunate for his education and access to the Internet - tools to help his family.

BELMONTE: We still had a better scenario compared to all the other people who are less privileged than us. And I was imagining, like, people would probably just be staying and dying at home. And it really just exposed the huge inequality of access to health care.

MCCARTHY: Belmonte adds, it's inexcusable that a year into a deadly pandemic, the system is so unprepared. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.