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'A gift that fell from the sky': Vaccine brings hope to Spanish care homes devastated by COVID-19

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A care home resident in San Camilo receives her first coronavirus jab.
A care home resident in San Camilo receives her first coronavirus jab.   -   Copyright  Euronews
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Doctors recall the noise of residents' struggling to breathe on the morning of March 18, 2020 when the coronavirus first arrived at the San Camilo care home in Madrid.

"They called from the fourth floor because a woman got sick. The stridor (breathing sound) was so loud you hear from the outside," said Lourdes Iglesias, a doctor at the San Camilo care home.

"We were starting to treat her when I got a call from the third floor. Then another one on the fourth floor. My heart sank. I said: God this is going so fast," she added.

Then, madness: residents had to be kept in their rooms as much time as possible as the care home's daily activity was completely disrupted.

The big hall that used to host amateur theatre plays became a COVID-19 ward where residents would fight for their lives, treated by personnel wearing full protective equipment.

"There were two ways out here. The gym -- then turned into a recovery and rehabilitation room -- or the chapel, where relatives were given the opportunity to say farewell to their loved ones,” said another staff member at San Camilo.

The benches in the chapel were replaced with beds of people dying, so they could spend some time with their families, even if they had to wear full personal protective equipment.

“In hospitals they died alone. Here, they have always died with someone at their side. And that makes a big difference," said Iglesias.

Euronews
During the worst of the pandemic, the chapel was turned into a room where relatives could say goodbye to loved ones.Euronews

Thirty residents lost their lives during the first wave of the virus and half of the staff were infected with COVID-19.

“We didn't even have time to think if we were even sick," said Pablo Sastre, head of the palliative care unit. The care home, managed by the Catholic Order of San Camilo, was lucky to have a full medical staff and a palliative care unit.

In Madrid alone, thousands were denied transfer to hospitals and intensive care units.

At least 26,500 people have from COVID-19 in Spanish care homes, accounting for almost half of the country's deaths.

'It was a gift. It fell from the sky'

The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived on 12 January, right after the historic storm Filomena buried Madrid under half a metre of snow.

“It was a gift. It fell from the sky like the snow. I say it was a gift from San Camilo. The vials arrived, but the team in charge of the vaccination could not make it because of the snow. Luckily, we knew how to do it," said Iglesias.

Together with Iglesias, head nurse Laura Steegmann vaccinated 280 people the next day: all of the residents and most of the care home staff.

They are now asking authorities to allow them to do the second jab themselves, so they can finish the process as soon as the new doses are available.

Steegmann recalls the moment she first held the syringe in her hand.

“It was a feeling of hope, thinking that it might all end. That we will not have to live any longer with this permanent anxiety," she said.

The empty vials remained on a table, as if they are still too precious to be disposed of.

Euronews
An empty vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.Euronews

Amidst a third coronavirus wave that is flooding Spanish hospitals with patients, staff at the care home are concentrating on keeping the centre COVID-free until they can get the second jab.

“I was not comfortable at all with outside visitors. I wanted to lock the care home down until we get the second jab, but the regional government opposed it. We reduced visits of relatives to once a week," said Iglesias.

Shortages in vaccine deliveries could compromise their ability to give out second doses.

Amid announcements of delivery delays, several regional governments in Spain have already halted new vaccinations to ensure those who got the first doses can access a second one.

"We hope we can get new vials in three or four weeks," Iglesias added.

Even if it exceeds the prescribed 21 days between doses, authorities say it will not compromise the effectiveness of the vaccine.

A sign of hope

Even as the vaccine brings residents hope for the future, they will still have to deal with the trauma that came with a year of death and solitude.

"This has made us more fragile. Some of the residents are very sad, no matter how much we care workers try to do our best," said José Carlos Bermejo, director of the San Camilo care home.

"A lot of them have now very few significant personal relationships, so we have a long and hard work ahead."

Euronews
Residents at the care home enjoy life as they wait for their second jabs.Euronews

But there are still signs of life: in the dining room residents dance with staff to Juan Luis Guerra's Burbujas de Amor.

Nuria Gimeno Rubio, 82, can't wait to get the second jab so she can see their children again.

“I am craving kissing and hugging them,” Gimeno said.