Only about a month ago, the IFEMA Convention Center in Madrid was swarming with attendees at a cybersecurity trade fair. Now the sprawling complex has been transformed into a massive coronavirus field hospital, as Spanish authorities race to respond to the world’s third-deadliest outbreak.
Hundreds of patients have been transferred since Sunday into makeshift hospital wards set up in the vast halls of the center, located in the northeast part of the Spanish capital. Health officials said Monday that the facility was now equipped to treat 1,300 patients this week — making it the largest hospital in Spain — and that they planned to scale up to 5,500 beds, including 500 for intensive care patients. That would make it one of the largest hospitals in the world.
Madrid is the epicenter of Spain’s outbreak, accounting for almost a third of the country’s 33,089 confirmed cases, and Spain has had more than 2,200 deaths, the world’s third-highest death toll after Italy (5,476) and China (3,153). Madrid's hospitals are being overwhelmed by the rapid influx of COVID-19 patients; video taken Friday night showed coronavirus patients lying on the floors of the emergency department of the city’s Infanta Leonor hospital as they waited for treatment.
The surging demand has forced authorities to take drastic measures to boost capacity. Last week, the government put all of Spain’s private health providers and their facilities under government control, and called up more than 50,000 workers to help the country’s health service, including retired doctors and nurses as well as medical students.
Besides the field hospital at IFEMA, officials in Madrid have converted two hotels into facilities for coronavirus patients with mild symptoms, such as those at the start and end of treatment. Forty hotels in the region have also offered the use of their buildings, and regional authorities say they plan to convert more of them into coronavirus facilities.
Photographs of IFEMA distributed by city authorities showed the first patients being brought in wheelchairs Sunday into the vast convention hall, containing scores of hospital beds laid out in rows.
“The truth is that it’s impressive,” tweeted Fernando Valls, a local doctor.
On Monday, the field hospital discharged its first patient, a man who had been admitted to another hospital on March 14. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Madrid’s leader, tweeted a video of the masked patient leaving the field hospital to the applause of healthcare workers.
The Madrid-based El Mundo newspaper reported that patients in the makeshift hospital would be divided into four groups — with critical care beds, separate zones for patients with and without risk factors, and a “comfort” zone for less-affected patients. Officials plan to establish a laboratory and pharmacy in the complex, and they're urgently recruiting doctors and nurses, along with non-medical staff like security guards, to staff the new facility.
Antonio Zapatero, director of the field hospital, told El Mundo that he had been struck by the “spectacular, fast and exciting response” of health workers.
“Volunteer doctors and nurses keep coming in to roll up their sleeves and get to work on whatever it takes. The solidarity, dedication and professionalism of these people is absolutely spectacular,” he said.
A nurse at Infanta Leonor hospital, which was overwhelmed by a surge of emergency patients Friday night, told El Mundo that the situation had improved by Sunday, partly as a result of the transfer of cases to Ifema.
Spain has been in lockdown since 14 March, with people allowed out only to buy food or medicine, seek medical help, or travel to work.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned Sunday that the country was yet to experience the peak of the crisis and told citizens to prepare for “very hard days ahead.”
“The worst is yet to come,” he said. “We have yet to receive the impact of the strongest, most damaging wave, which will test our material and moral capacities to the limit, as well as our spirit as a society.”
The Spanish health ministry's emergencies coordinator, Fernando Simon, told a news conference that health workers accounted for more than 10 percent of all confirmed cases adding to the strain on the overburdened hospitals.
“This is a significant problem for our health care system,” he said.
Cover: In this photo provided by Comunidad de Madrid, sanitary staff work at the IFEMA convention center in Madrid, Spain on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Spanish health authorities have acknowledged that some intensive care units in the hardest-hit areas are close to their limit. (Comunidad de Madrid via AP)