Taiwan Hospitals at 'Breaking Point' With Surge in COVID-19 Cases

Hospitals in and around the capital, Taipei, are running out of isolation ward and ICU beds, a doctors' union says.
Taiwan Hospitals at 'Breaking Point' With Surge in COVID-19 Cases Medical staffers prepare to collect samples from local residents during a COVID-19 corona virus testing at the Xindian District in New Taipei City, May 21, 2021.

Doctors in the democratic island of Taiwan have warned that hospitals in the capital are already overwhelmed by the rapid growth in COVID-19 cases, as the country's government scrambles to procure jabs for an under-vaccinated population.

Taiwan, once seen as a haven of normalcy amid the pandemic, is now facing a rapid rise in community-transmitted cases, with the island already under level 3 restrictions affecting businesses, schools and masking requirements in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

Now, the area around the capital Taipei is facing a shortage of isolation ward and intensive care unit (ICU) staff, a medical doctors' union warned on its Facebook page on Thursday.

"The coronavirus situation in the greater Taipei area continues to worsen, with an acute shortage of isolation beds and wards, as well as the [specialized] staff to run them," the Taipei Doctors' Union said.

"If this isn't breaking point for the healthcare system, then we don't know what is," the statement said.


'Extreme shortage of wards'

The doctors called on the government to stop reassuring people, saying that doctors and other healthcare workers are already being transferred from other disciplines to aid the COVID-19 effort.

"Due to an extreme shortage of wards and the rapid progress of the virus, we are pretty much at the end of our capacity when it comes to negative pressure isolation wards," it said. "Isolation ward capacity is also threatened."

"Right now, general hospital wards are being used as ICUs in Taipei, with intubation, resuscitation and diagnosis taking place in emergency rooms," it said.

"We are also concerned about whether hospitals are safe enough to avoid infections among healthcare staff," the doctors' union said, warning that doctors could soon be forced to start allocating scarce resources like ventilators based on ethically dubious principles like age, or "first come, first served."

It also called for emergency temporary accommodation for medical staff, who could then avoid transmitting the coronavirus to vulnerable people in their own homes.

Chen Shih-chung of Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center, said the authorities are working to divert ambulances from "hot zones" to less busy hospitals.

"Everyone has worked really hard," he said in response to reports that National Taiwan University hospital was currently under huge pressure.

"Patients need to be diverted and ambulance deliveries should be appropriately divided [between hospitals] so we can respond more effectively," Chen told a news conference in Taipei on Thursday.

Vaccine hesitancy

Community transmission has skyrocketed in Taiwan at a time when only 1.3 percent of the population has received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Taiwan has secured less than one million doses of vaccines for its 24 million citizens, receiving 726,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine via the COVAX sharing scheme and directly from the manufacturer.

However, a poll by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in April showed that less than one third of people were willing to take it.

The warnings from doctors come after President Tsai Ing-wen accused China of blocking its attempts to sign a deal for the supply of vaccines from BioNTech of Germany.

"We had almost completed the contract signing with the German manufacturer at one point, but it has been delayed till now because China has interfered," Tsai told a meeting of her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Wednesday.

Chen Shih-chung of Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center, told reporters on Thursday that the BioNTech deal collapsed after the company introduced a requirement that Taiwan drop the use of the word "country" to describe itself, a requirement likely linked to political pressure from China.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office says it has repeatedly offered to help Taiwan by supplying its own vaccines, but the government appears reluctant to take up the offer amid public concerns over the safety and effectiveness of Chinese-made medicines.

Tsai has previously said that Taiwan will only do deals directly with manufacturers, in order to ensure quality control.

Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, was denied a seat at the World Health Assembly on May 24 after China and its allies voted down the proposal to reinstate it.

China insists that its territorial claim on Taiwan prevent any of its diplomatic partners from having diplomatic relations with Taipei, as well as precluding its membership in international organizations.

Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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