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Chile's COVID-19 Vaccination Program Was Largely Successful — But The Virus Persists

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Chile has been praised worldwide for its COVID-19 vaccination program. It has vaccinated a higher proportion of its population than all but a few countries. Yet, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Chile's battle against the pandemic is far from over.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Mauricio Cancino is a doctor on the front line. He works in intensive care. Chile is being engulfed by a second wave of the pandemic. That means IC beds in Cancino's hospital are...

MAURICIO CANCINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...One-hundred percent occupied. It's been like that for more than a month, says Cancino.

CANCINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We know that out of every 10 patients who come into our intensive care unit, three are going to die," he says. Cancino works in the Carlos Van Buren Hospital in Chile's port city of Valparaiso.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Last month, the hospital made TV headlines when its morgue ran out of space. Bodies were stored in a corridor and in refrigerated trucks. Chile's second wave is much worse than the first because it's hitting pretty much everywhere at the same time. Despite the country's high vaccination rate, IC occupancy is at 95% percent nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Chile's government has been pushing back by announcing new restrictions...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Including quarantines and by placing the entire country under nighttime curfew. Margarita Araya (ph) says this is all...

MARGARITA ARAYA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Way too late. Araya is president of a public health workers union.

ARAYA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says, "psychological and physical pressures on health workers are huge." When the government opens more IC beds, there aren't enough staff to support them, she says. So what's gone wrong? Lots of things, say Chile's medical professionals. People ignored restrictions in order to work. Youngsters went out partying. Then, in January, as Chile's summer holidays began, the government eased pandemic restrictions.

CLAUDIA CORTES: They opened the casinos. They opened the restaurants. They opened the church. And also, they decide to open the schools.

REEVES: Claudia Cortes is an infectious disease specialist.

CORTES: We all raise our voices, and they did not listen to us.

REEVES: Cortes says Chileans were even allowed to go on holiday to neighboring Brazil, where the pandemic is out of control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Chile's government has been running ads, urging people to get vaccinated. So far, about a third of the population have had both shots, mostly of the Chinese-made CoronaVac. This is making a difference, says Dr. Miguel Orion (ph), who's on a scientific board advising Chile's government.

MIGUEL ORION: We have seen a clear reduction in ICU occupancy in the over 70s.

REEVES: Orion says more young unvaccinated people are winding up in intensive care, fueling the rise in cases. But he adds...

ORION: If you look at the number of deaths, clearly, it has not gone at the same rate. It is half that.

REEVES: Yet Claudia Cortes, the infectious disease specialist, thinks Chile's government became too complacent about its high-speed vaccination program.

CORTES: They give a message that - it was like, this is over. We're going to get the vaccines, and this is over.

REEVES: She says people start thinking...

CORTES: OK, I got one vaccine. I'm almost done, so I stop using the mask. I start going to crowds.

REEVES: Studies show one dose of CoronaVac offers almost no protection. For Chile's frontline medical staff, frustration and exhaustion are setting in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDRA MONTEDONICO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Let's talk about what we're feeling, says Dr. Sandra Montedonico in a video message to colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTEDONICO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We're witnessing loneliness, illness and death," she says. And we're feeling anguish because we don't have the support we need to provide the care Chileans deserve.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.