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Spain deaths top 9,000 but epidemic passes peak

Spain has the world's second-highest death toll after Italy, with the virus so far claiming 9,053 lives after a record 864 people died over the past 24 hours, while the number of confirmed cases reached 102,136.

Picture: 123rf.

MADRID, Spain - Spain's death toll surged over 9,000 Wednesday as infections passed the 100,000 mark, but the rate of new cases continued to slow, suggesting the epidemic had peaked, health chiefs said.

Spain has the world's second-highest death toll after Italy, with the virus so far claiming 9,053 lives after a record 864 people died over the past 24 hours, while the number of confirmed cases reached 102,136.

But on a day-to-day basis, the rate of new infections continued its week-long downward trend.

And most importantly, the number of people in hospital and those in intensive care was falling, suggesting the epidemic had reached its peak, Fernando Simon, head of the health ministry's emergency coordination unit.

"This is important," said Simon who himself was diagnosed with the virus this week.

"Right now the central issue is not whether we have reached the peak or not, it seems we're already there, and the numbers are going down."

The main priority now was to ensure that the health system was capable of guaranteeing adequate coverage for all patients, Simon said.

Officials said the figures gave a "very positive" indication that the unprecedented lockdown put in place on March 14, confining Spain's population of nearly 47 million to their homes, was working.

Crunching the numbers, Wednesday's figures showed new cases increasing by just over 8.0 percent, compared with nearly 11 percent on Tuesday and 20 percent a week ago.

They also showed the death rate increasing at a rate of 10.6 percent compared with 27 percent a week ago, with Dr Maria Jose Sierra from the emergencies coordination unit saying the recent fatalities were those "who were infected two or three weeks ago".

'WE'RE GETTING THERE'

Maria Linero, a 28-year-old doctor working at a private hospital in central Madrid but who did not want to give her family name, said they had seen a drop in numbers in recent days.

"Last week, we were getting between 30 to 40 per day. Today, we've had 20. It's going down, little by little so we're on the right track," she told AFP.

In one of the hospital's centres, they were currently treating 446 people of whom 63 were in intensive care, she said, describing it as "the lowest figure we've seen since the start of the epidemic".

"Unfortunately this epidemic has shown us that we are not at all prepared to deal with this number of people."

Spain's health care system has been stretched to its limit by a massive influx of seriously ill patients, and last weekend, Simon warned that even if the epidemic peaked, the pressure on the intensive care system would be subject to a lag of at least a week.

Spain is also struggling with a worrying rise in cases among healthcare personnel, with some 12,300 infected.

And thousands of others are also struggling with the psychological burden of being on the front line.

STAFF AT BREAKING POINT

"You see there is no capacity and no resources which leads to extremely hard decisions that people take home with them," said Maria Fernanda Visconti, a Venezuelan specialist in risk prevention at work who is responsible for staff and resources at Madrid's La Princesa hospital and two other facilities.

"There are people who just break down during a session, telling me they live in a tiny flat with their elderly mother," she told AFP.

"Or one nurse came to work the day after her mother died, but she wasn't there at the time because she was working and feels horribly guilty."

Even the non-medical staff are under huge strain, with many sick, Visconti said, describing the overall situation as "chaotic" with many suffering from "a huge sense of powerlessness and frustration".

Madrid has been by far the worst-hit area, with Wednesday's figures raising the death toll to 3,865, with the region suffering close to 30,000 cases, leaving hospitals and mortuaries overwhelmed.

On the upside, the number of people recovering has been steadily growing, rising to 22,647 on Wednesday after another 3,388 were declared virus-free, the figures showed. Nearly half of that number are in the Madrid region.