By Monica Machicao and Maria Cervantes
LA PAZ/LIMA (Reuters) - The critical-care wards of major hospitals in Peru and Bolivia stand at or near collapse after end-of-year holidays, reflecting wider regional public health capacity concerns as much of Latin America struggles to secure adequate COVID-19 vaccine supplies.
While infection counts remain below last year's peak, depleted resources, weary medical workers and a recent rush of severe cases are taxing already ailing healthcare systems from Chile to Mexico, officials say.
In Bolivia, long lines of patients seeking tests snaked along the street outside a hospital complex in the Andean city of La Paz, prompting fears of worsening contagion amid the chaos.
"How can we not see another massive outbreak if we're all standing here together and no one knows who has COVID?" said Rocio Gonzalez as she waited for medical attention.
Cases in Bolivia have spiked in the past two weeks, with an average of 1,153 infections reported daily, around 68% of the country's July peak, according to a Reuters analysis of official data. La Paz and Santa Cruz, two of the country's largest cities, have been especially hard hit.
Oscar Romero, director of the Clinicas Hospital in La Paz, said the difference now was that more patients were requiring intensive care, calling the second wave "far more serious."
In neighboring Peru, hospitals in the capital, Lima, and nearby Callao, which together service a population of 10 million, had only 16 ICU beds with ventilators available early this week, according to a report from the Peruvian Ombudsman's Office. Farther north along the coast, hospitals were full, the report said.
"We're now paying for the behavior of the past few weeks," Fernando Padilla, a regional health chief in northern Peru, told reporters. He said Peruvians had become too relaxed, failing to take proper precautions to avoid contagion.
The daily caseload in Peru remains at just 20% of its August peak, but authorities say more people have been hospitalized because many are waiting until symptoms are severe to take tests.
VACCINE PROCUREMENT PROBLEMS
Cases in Chile have also crept upward through the holiday season, hitting 26% of the country's June peak.
Authorities in Chile say a second wave of infections has yet to arrive across most of the country. But rapidly filling hospitals in some regions, including mine-rich Antofagasta, have been forced to fly patients south to the capital, Santiago, where more hospital beds are still available.
In the Colombian capital, Bogota, where three neighborhoods entered a 14-day quarantine to slow coronavirus infections on Tuesday, the occupancy rate of ICUs for COVID-19 patients was at 81.8%, according to local government figures.
In Mexico City, 85% of general hospital beds, or 4,630 beds, and 85% of hospital beds with ventilators, or 1,688 beds, are now filled.
In Brazil´s Amazon, refrigerated containers have again been placed outside the main hospitals to store bodies in the city of Manaus, where cemeteries could not keep up during the pandemic's peak in April.
Chaos has returned to Manaus' overwhelmed healthcare system. Private hospital intensive care beds were 100% occupied this week, putting pressure on public health system hospitals where 92% of the ICUs capable of handling COVID-19 patients were in use by Monday.
The scramble for hospital beds comes in a region where many countries have been slow to lock down vaccine supplies.
Bolivia and Peru have lagged well behind some wealthier neighbors, only recently signing deals to procure vaccines. Neither country has begun to vaccinate its residents.
Chile, a regional standout, was the first in South America to launch a vaccination program, and says it aims to inoculate 80% of its population by mid-year.
The procurement issues are not unique to the region's poorest countries. Regional power Brazil, suffering from the world's second-deadliest outbreak, has yet to approve a single vaccine.
(Reporting by Monica Machicao in La Paz and Maria Cervantes in Lima; Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito in Mexico City, Oliver Griffin in Bogota, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Dave Sherwood in Santiago; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Peter Cooney)