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Israeli aid team heads to Uruguay, where COVID dream has turned to nightmare

The South American country hardly felt the virus last year, but now has the world’s second-highest infection rate and hospitals are under pressure

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A healthcare worker prepares the material to test a child for COVID-19, on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
A healthcare worker prepares the material to test a child for COVID-19, on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

An Israeli aid delegation was set to land Tuesday in Uruguay, a country that went almost overnight from a low-COVID oasis to a notorious hotspot with the world’s second-highest rate of new cases.

The four-person team from Sheba Medical Center’s weeklong mission will focus on helping hospitals struggling to cope with the sudden skyrocketing of cases in recent weeks to establish new coronavirus facilities.

For most of 2020, Uruguay, which has a population of just 3.5 million, had very low virus stats. It ended the year with just 181 COVID deaths, but has now seen 2,391, and aside from Cyprus, which just had a sudden spike, has the highest incidence of new cases in proportion to the population.

Some 187,000 Uruguayans have been diagnosed — almost three quarters of them since mid-February, apparently as a result of a variant from neighboring Brazil.

A healthcare worker disinfects a teammate after testing a person for COVID-19 in Montevideo, Uruguay, April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

“As cases rise in Uruguay, we’re here to give whatever help, advice and information proves useful in fighting the crisis,” Moriya Suliman, a nurse from the Sheba delegation, told The Times of Israel. “We’re excited to help.”

The delegation includes senior doctor Rony Ashkenazi and Sheba’s logistics coordinator Shai Swissa, who was responsible for identifying spare areas at the hospital, including parking lots, and converting them into coronavirus wards.

He will be helping hospitals in Uruguay to do the same — to open new intensive care facilities and wards for COVID-positive psychiatric patients, dialysis patients and others — as done in Sheba. Swissa is the son of Uruguayan parents who moved to Israel, and will do his coaching in fluent Spanish.

The team will mainly help and advise in hospitals, but will also provide consultations to authorities on vaccination strategies. Uruguay has been racing to vaccinate since it became the last country in South America to start its vaccination campaign on March 1. Almost a third of its population has now received at least one shot.

Members of the Sheba Medical Center aid team to Uruguay (in T-shirts) before departure, with the ambassador of Uruguay to Israel Bernardo Griever (in suit) next to Prof. Arnon Afek, deputy director general of the hospital. (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

Authorities in Uruguay asked Sheba’s Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response for help, and the hospital responded by shipping equipment, including ECG machines and ventilators, and assembling the aid team.

“They came to us because we’re the first nation to beat coronavirus and return to normal routine,” said Suliman. “At Sheba we’ve closed all our coronavirus wards and we can share all our knowledge, allowing them to learn from our experiences, including from our mistakes.”

Delegation head Amit Gutkind, a nurse who masterminded Sheba’s rapid vaccination program, said: “They ask a lot about what’s happening in Israel and how we improved things in such a short time, and we’re pleased to now be on the ground to provide some answers.”

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