May 16, 2020 / 4:57 AM / 9 days ago

As Guayaquil stabilizes, Ecuador's capital braces for virus wave

QUITO (Reuters) - As the coronavirus outbreak in Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil begins to stabilize, the government is bracing for worsening spread in the highland capital Quito, where at least six people have died in the streets in the past month.

FILE PHOTO: An Ecuadoran police officer checks a driver's safe passage documents after Ecuador's government restricted travels within the country and declared a nighttime curfew as a response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia/File Photo

Guayaquil was at the center of one of Latin America’s worst outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in March and April. Cemeteries ran out of space and families stored relatives’ dead bodies in their homes or on the streets as the virus strained the health system’s capacity to collect them.

But authorities’ attention is now turning to Quito, whose 2.8 million residents are under a strict lockdown to contain the virus’ spread. The local government said in a statement on Friday that between April 4 and May 13 it had picked up the bodies of six people who had died in the streets, in addition to seven bodies from homes and two from nursing homes.

The government said on Thursday night that 135 of the 164 intensive care beds in the city’s public hospitals are occupied, and that it plans to install some 80 more.

“Quito’s health system is reaching its limit,” the city’s mayor, Jorge Yunda, said on Friday during the opening of a temporary 380-bed hospital for coronavirus patients.

Pichincha province, where Quito is located, has registered some 2,400 coronavirus cases and 181 deaths. That is still fewer than southern Guayas province, where Guayaquil is located, where 55% of the country’s 31,467 total cases have been registered.

But the deaths in the streets have caused alarm. On May 3 a 60-year-old merchant who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, collapsed and died after walking just a few meters on the street, Yunda told local media last week.

Despite the strict lockdown in Quito, informal salesmen seeking income to subsist have continued to cluster in many parts of the city. The government has extended the lockdown through May 31, and is implementing a web-based system to help residents locate the nearest place to seek medical attention.

Authorities also said they will be working together with funeral homes to avoid delays in cremating bodies.

“We have taken all the necessary measures, and we have a plan to deal with deaths at homes and at hospitals,” Sebastian Barona, the coordinator of an industry group representing Ecuador’s funeral homes, told Reuters.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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