As Iran’s official death toll from the COVID-19 virus climbs to 1,812, doctors and nurses battling the virus around the country say they are at risk of infection because they lack basic equipment like masks and full-coverage protective suits.
While there is no officially announced tally of deaths of medical personnel, the France 24 Observers team has counted 62 COVID-19 deaths reported among doctors and nurses on reliable social media sources between Feb. 25 and March 23. In interviews, 11 doctors and nurses from cities around the country spoke of shortages of equipment and medical supplies in the hospitals where they work, and of their own fear of being infected.
READ MORE: Authorities in Iran ‘hiding’ COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports
At least 62 doctors and nurses have died-until the date of publication of this report- while battling Iran’s coronavirus epidemic, among them: (from top left) Dr. Siamak Divashli of Anzali, March 7; Dr. Shirin Rouhanirad of Pakdasht, March 19; nurse Narges Khanalizadeh of Lahijan, Feb. 25; nurse Ramin Azizifar of Tehran, Feb. 28.
“We have no equipment at all – we’re in danger of getting infected”
France 24 talked to a nurse in Qom, the holy city that was the site of the first coronavirus cluster reported in Iran. Like 10 other Iranian doctors and nurses contacted by the France 24 Observers, the nurse in Qom requested anonymity, saying he and his colleagues had been told not to talk to the media about the virus.
“At the end of February, after the government finally acknowledged the country’s first coronavirus cluster here in Qom, they sent a training team to our hospital. They gave our staff special training in procedures to protect ourselves against getting infected while we are treating patients with the coronavirus.
During the training sessions, they gave us full-body protective suits, masks, safety visors – everything we needed, in perfect condition. But now that the epidemic is in full swing and our hospital is full of people contaminated with the virus, we have no equipment at all. We’re in danger of getting infected ourselves.
All they give us is a disposable operating room gown that does nothing to protect us from any virus. We don’t have enough special masks. The regular masks that hospitals issue don’t protect medical staff who are in close contact with patients. In any case, we don’t even have enough of the regular masks either.
We have mentioned these problems to the governor and the Health Ministry, but nothing has changed. In many hospitals we don’t even have mechanical ventilators [machines that pump air or oxygen into patients’ lungs, critical in severe COVID-19 cases]. We do not have the basic medicines needed to treat this kind of disease.”
These photographs show equipment issued to medical staff in Qom who are treating COVID-19 patients in March 2020. Medical workers say such surgery gowns and masks are ineffective in protecting them from catching the virus from a patient.
This video, posted on Telegram March 4 shows a nurse in Iran. She shows protective gear to the camera, saying: “I have a surprise for you. It’s my protective gear. See how thick it is? That’s supposed to stop me getting the coronavirus? Forget about it! Even if it’s too small for me.”
“They only give us protective gear when the TV cameras come”
According to dozens of online posts by medical staff around Iran, hospitals across the country are suffering shortages of equipment and supplies they need to fight the COVID-19 virus. Khashayar (not real name), a doctor who works at one of the main hospitals in Tehran, believes the authorities are trying to hide the lack of equipment from ordinary Iranians.
“At our hospital in the capital, the situation is just as bad as it is in every other hospital in the country. We’re risking our lives because of a lack of proper training and protective gear.
When state TV came here a few days ago to film a report, the hospital all of a sudden gave us the best protective gear and everything we needed. But it was only for a few hours: they only gave us protective gear when the TV cameras came. Since then we haven’t seen that kind of equipment. They filmed in wards that have the appropriate equipment like ventilators. Our hospital does have COVID-19 patients in well-equipped wards with ventilators, but we also have patients in critical condition who are not on ventilators because we don’t have any more of them.”
These photos show COVID-19 patients at the Amini Hospital in Langeroud, Gilan province, Iran. No mechanical ventilators are visible, and some patients are in the corridor.
I’m tired and angry. Some of our colleagues have already been infected. Others are just exhausted. If the situation continues like this our health system will collapse and I don’t know how many people will die.
“We have to buy our own protective suits… masks too”
Melody (not her real name), an emergency room doctor at a hospital in a city 200km east of Tehran, described the shortages she and her colleagues face.
“Our hospital doesn’t have any protective suits. Our clothing and skin come in contact with coronavirus patients. They just give us latex gloves – two pairs per shift. Even if we want to protect ourselves, we have to buy our own protective suits. If we manage to track some down, the prices are crazy! I bought nine suits for 2.5 million toman [150 euro].
We have to buy our own masks too. The hospital only gives us one surgical mask for 8 to 12 hours of work. That’s not enough: if we don’t change them every three hours, they become a source of infection. But they don’t do anything to protect us in any case; they’re the kind of masks designed to protect patients from the surgeon who is operating on them, not the other way around. We need special masks known as N95 masks, meaning they can filter out 95 percent of any nanoparticles like viruses. These masks protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face.”
This video was filmed March 2 at the Razi hospital in Rasht, Gilan province and shared on Telegram. The hospital’s head nurse says: ”We need protective suits. We need masks for everyone, patients and medical staff. We need alcohol and disinfectant.”
I know of at least 12 doctors and nurses in our city who have been infected with the virus. One of them has died. Some of our colleagues, especially nurses, have stopped coming to work. We can’t go on like this for long. The psychological pressure is unbearable. Every second you think you might get infected yourself and die. We just don’t have enough protective equipment in our hospitals.
“Hospitals depend on volunteers like me”
Doctors and nurses have also appealed for help online from ordinary Iranian citizens. Varesh (not real name), a social activist in Gilan province who has already lost two family members to the virus, told the France 24 Observers that she and a network of other volunteers regularly help hospitals in the area by buying supplies on the open market and donating them to hospital staff.
“The hospitals in our city and the surrounding area are full. They’re putting beds in the hallways. There aren’t enough ventilators. There is some medicine, but not enough for everyone.
The hospitals lack masks and disinfection liquids. Hospitals depend on volunteers like me, who travel to Tehran or other cities and buy as much as we can, then donate it to the hospitals in our region.”
Doctors and nurses in Langeroud, Gilan province, turned to social media to ask people to donate protective equipment and other supplies to help them combat the coronavirus. In this post, they say: “It’s urgent! If the situation continues like this, no one among our medical staff will be left to take care of the patients. Because of the lack of protective equipment, all of our medical staff will be infected.”
In this video filmed at a hospital in Alashtar and posted on social media March 12, the man filming says to a group of hospital workers: “Members of the public donated these protective faceshields. What else do you need?” One of the medical workers replies: “We need masks, disinfection liquid, and protective suits.”
First published here on France24.