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Chile pandemic: COVID cases rising despite vaccination campaign

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Chile's coronavirus crisis deepens, despite being one of the world's quickest to vaccinate

Video Transcript

LUCIA NEWMAN: A severe health crisis in the Latin American country one might least have expected. One Chilean is dying from COVID-19 every 15 minutes, and critical care units are overflowing. Dr. Sebastian Ugarte runs the ICU at Santiago's Indisa Clinic, and takes us to see for ourselves that every bed is occupied, even though the number of critical care units nearly doubled this week.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: People over 70, most of whom have already been vaccinated, have almost disappeared from our emergency rooms. Now we have younger patients, but some gravely ill.

LUCIA NEWMAN: Chile's second wave is turning out to be far more aggressive than the first, even though more than 33% of the population has received one or both jabs.

These people are among the tens of thousands of Chileans who are queuing at this hour for their coronavirus vaccine. And while Chile is a world leader in terms of the percentage of the population that has already been inoculated, health officials warn it will not make much difference, at least not for some time.

In order for herd immunity to be effective, 80% of Chileans must be fully vaccinated. And that won't happen for another three months.

INTERPRETER: Our duty is to make the vaccine available to everyone free of charge, and to convince you all that it's effective and safe.

LUCIA NEWMAN: Back at the hospital, doctors and nurses concede they're exhausted. 30% of staff are on medical leave from illness or stress. And they're more difficult to replace than a bed or respirator.

INTERPRETER: We caught our breath between the first and second wave, but the patient load never drops enough to really let us recover. So here we are, practically living here.

LUCIA NEWMAN: Nurse Matias Hernandez hasn't been able to travel home for nearly a year.

INTERPRETER: It's very stressful. The patients are in a critical condition. There's no time to rest because the number of patients multiply faster than we do. But we do all we can.

LUCIA NEWMAN: While Chileans suffering from pandemic burnout have clearly let down their guard, Dr. Ugarte is one of many who questions the government's overall pandemic strategy.

INTERPRETER: The strategy was not to suppress the pandemic but to contain it. A delicate balance in which flexibility and easing restrictions had led to thousands of new patients, despite the inoculation.

LUCIA NEWMAN: A bitter lesson for a country that thought it was out of the woods, and a wake-up call for others who are counting on vaccines to be the magic cure. Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera, Santiago.