Lockdown: Nursing homes in Spain a vector for deadly coronavirus

Lockdown: Nursing homes in Spain a vector for deadly coronavirus

MADRID: Death arrived slowly at the nursing home where Chelo Megia works. Then it was everywhere.

On March 11, a Wednesday, Megia still thought the Residencia Nunez De Balboa in central Spain, where she had been an auxiliary nurse for 15 years, might avoid the new virus spreading rapidly across the country. “We saw it as far away,” she said.

By Thursday, several elderly residents had been hospitalized. The staff learned later that some residents had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Friday a medical team arrived in head-to-toe hazmat gear that Megia had only ever seen in movies.

“They started isolating everybody and telling us, ‘Protect yourselves.’ We were wearing a mask and gloves and that was it,” she said.

That day, the regional government replaced the management of Megia’s home, which it had been running as part of social services, with medical staff, and transferred it to its health department in a bid to tackle the outbreak.

Just one week later, according to unions and officials, 10 of the home’s 200 or so residents are dead, 13 have tested positive for coronavirus and 50 more are possibly infected in a country with one of the biggest outbreaks after China and Italy. Not all have been tested. A patient ombudsman’s group has filed a complaint of negligence against the home with Spanish authorities; the home’s owner, the regional government, declined to comment on it.

Worldwide, nursing homes have become hotspots for the disease. As it courses through Spain, the death toll has more than doubled in the past week to 1,720 people, says Spain’s health emergencies department. So far at least 100 of those have reportedly been from nursing homes, but the central government can’t say how many.

“Right now, this isn’t a nursing home, it’s a hospital,” said Megia, 49, exhausted and shaken after seven straight days on the job. “Everything has completely changed.”


The coronavirus has wrought dramatic transformations of nursing homes across Spain, turning dozens of its 5,500 homes into plague houses and propelling their ill-equipped staff onto the frontlines of an accelerating pandemic.

Spain’s overwhelmed hospitals have asked homes for the elderly like Megia’s to care for seriously ill residents, but the homes lack ventilators and must compete with hospitals for scarce medical equipment and virus testing kits, industry representatives say.

Many face dwindling supplies of face masks, gloves and gowns, according to staff, union leaders, care home operators and industry groups interviewed by Reuters.

In some homes, staff said they were rationing masks or making their own out of cloth, or wearing disposable gowns for multiple shifts. Some workers said they were too scared to come to work, while others had fallen sick, leaving homes short-staffed during a time of unprecedented need.

These claims were echoed in video testimony from seven care workers provided by their union to Reuters. They said they had received little or no guidance on how to deal with infected residents, and feared carrying the disease home to their own families. Some accused their managers of downplaying or covering up cases of coronavirus.