TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The hospitalization of Honduras' president with COVID-19 and pneumonia Wednesday has drawn attention to another country struggling under the pandemic's strain as cases rise sharply in the capital.
President Juan Orlando Hernández announced late Tuesday that he and his wife had tested positive for the virus. Just hours later he was hospitalized after doctors determined he had pneumonia.
From March to June 7, Honduras confirmed 6,327 coronavirus infections. In the 10 days since, it added 3,329 more, a surge that has come after the government began a gradual reactivation of the economy.
The northern business hub of San Pedro Sula still accounts for the majority of the cases, but the capital, Tegucigalpa, is the focus of new infections.
Health Minister Alba Consuelo Flores confirmed that hospitals in those cities are nearly full, but said the government had to begin loosening restrictions. Many businesses closed since March have been allowed to reopen, though with reduced capacity. Those companies provide passes to their workers allowing them to avoid a national curfew that has been extended to June 28 and only allows people to leave home for essentials on certain days based on their national ID number.
"If we don't activate the economy we're going to have another kind of pandemic that is hunger, malnutrition and probably social crises," Flores said.
She said if the people continue to be disciplined they will be able to manage the epidemic. The country made wearing masks obligatory and businesses are reopening with just 20% of their personnel.
But Suyapa Figueroa, president the Honduras Medical College, said hospitals are already being overwhelmed. The School Hospital, the capital's largest public hospital, has already outfitted additional rooms for COVID-19 patients, but they haven't kept up with the demand, she said. Several dozen people were awaiting space to be hospitalized, she said.
Asked for comment, the hospital sent a WhatsApp message suggesting two of its officials to speak with late Wednesday but neither could be reached.
A local news station circulated video Tuesday of more than a dozen bodies wrapped in black bags scattered through hallways and rooms in the hospital's overwhelmed morgue.
Figueroa said that due to a shortage of pressure gauges, oxygen is shifted from patient to patient in turns.
The School Hospital is one health center where the International Committee of the Red Cross is supporting the country's health system.
The organization has established a dual triage system that allows it to isolate those arriving with COVID-19 symptoms and try to refer them to other hospitals where there is bed space, said Karim Khallaayoun, mission chief for the Red Cross in Honduras. The group has also supplied personal protective equipment for hospital staff, training on how to use it and counseling as the physical and psychological strain of the work takes its toll.
"Over the past week, we are seeing an exponential increase in Tegucigalpa," Khallaayoun said. "Tegucigalpa has now become the epicenter of the contagion in the country."
He said most intensive care beds in the capital are full and the caseload is expected to continue growing in coming days.
Noting that the disease has been unpredictable, Khallaayoun said, "it's quite possible that the hospital system is going to be overwhelmed in the next two, three weeks before we see a descent in the figures."
Honduras has had nearly 10,000 confirmed cases of the disease and 330 deaths. But testing is limited and the real figures are surely much higher. The Health Ministry began sending teams into neighborhoods Tuesday to perform rapid tests for the coronavirus in an effort to detect infections before hospitalization is required.
Last week, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said it had started treating critical COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen in a 20-bed ward set up at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. The goal was to relieve pressure on the public health system.
Honduras' president said Tuesday night that he had already started feeling better and planned to be re-evaluated Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Francis Contreras, spokesman for the National System of Risk Management, said at a news conference that after reviewing Hernández's lab work and X-rays, doctors determined the president had pneumonia and recommended he be hospitalized. He said Hernández was in good condition, but he was receiving medicine intraveneously that had to be administered in the Military Hospital.
Hernández had said that over the weekend he began feeling some discomfort and on Tuesday received the test results.
He said it was part of the risk that comes with the job. With his responsibilities, he said, he could not stay at home constantly.
Hernández said he had started what he called the "MAIZ treatment," an experimental combination of microdacyn, azithromycin, ivermectin and zinc.
He said his wife was asymptomatic and two other people who work with them are also infected.
Hernández is a close ally of the Trump administration, primarily in efforts to slow illegal immigration. However, U.S. federal prosecutors in New York have prosecuted the president's brother and made it increasingly clear that a case is building against Hernández himself.
No charges have been filed against the president, but U.S. prosecutors have alleged he accepted money from drug traffickers to advance his political career in exchange for letting them move drugs through the country. Hernández denies those allegations.
He was re-elected in a disputed November 2017 election, despite the country's constitutional ban on reelection.