This island nation had zero COVID cases for months. Now it’s overwhelmed.

An offshore migrant detention center used by Australia in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, November 18, 2016. (Photo: NYTimes)
The emergency rooms are heaving, health care workers are falling sick, and misinformation about the coronavirus is running rife. It has all left Papua New Guinea, an island nation just north of Australia, in the grip of a deadly crisis, as a tripling of infections over the past month has swamped an already fragile health care system.اضافة اعلان

The wave of cases, which authorities have described as a “major epidemic,” most likely began in February. About 70 percent of symptomatic patients are testing positive — among the highest rates in the world. Of the country’s 39 deaths from the virus, 30 have happened in the past six weeks, and the number is expected to swell. Confirmed infections have passed 4,100, after having remained at zero through June, though the actual number of cases is believed to be far higher.

The toll on health workers has been severe. About 10 percent of workers have tested positive at the country’s major hospital, in Port Moresby, a city of 380,000 people that has been hit hardest. In field hospitals, workers, sweating beneath protective equipment, are rushing between beds to tend to the dying.

“We fear that we are going to fill all these beds and then we will have nowhere else to continue to care for COVID patients,” said Mangu Kendino, an emergency physician and the chair of the COVID-19 committee at Port Moresby General Hospital. “We’re tired, we’re exhausted, we’re fatigued.”

A year into the pandemic, countries around the world are entering a new phase as they vaccinate growing shares of their populations and reopen schools, restaurants and offices. But the crisis in Papua New Guinea is another reminder that the global emergency is far from over — that the virus will continue to wreak havoc and sow death until the entire world is vaccinated, a prospect that may be years away.

The situation in the island nation is exactly what public health experts have warned of as wealthy countries buy up the world’s vaccine stockpiles and put the pandemic largely behind them, while smaller and poorer nations are left with cap in hand. After having largely avoided severe outbreaks for many months, Papua New Guinea is now experiencing harrowing scenes not unlike those in Italy early in the pandemic. This month, one patient, suffering an asthma attack, died in a hospital parking lot.

“They have challenges accessing health care at the best of times,” said Rob Mitchell, an emergency physician specializing in triage in the Pacific. “I fear that the current case numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”

As infections flare, doctors are working overtime, trying to keep up with a demand that they expect will only increase in the coming weeks. In Port Moresby, the capital, stadiums have been converted into temporary field hospitals, and existing hospitals are stretched to capacity.

“The COVID center in Port Moresby is full; our field hospital is almost full,” said Gary Nou, an emergency physician helping to lead the government’s response to the pandemic.

In one of the field hospitals, Nou said, he and others, dressed in full protective equipment, often work in humid conditions as they struggle to keep their patients cool and hydrated. “As soon as you walk off the floor, you’re drenched in sweat,” he said. “When we are at maximum, our toilet facilities are stretched to the limit, and waste disposal is stretched to the limit. Every day is a challenge.”

Fearing spread of the virus, the Australian authorities have ramped up efforts to vaccinate the population of the Torres Strait Islands, an archipelago bordering northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Most of the islands are part of the Australian state of Queensland.

“They’re our family. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said. “This is in Australia’s interests, and it is in our region’s interests.”

Covax, a global health initiative designed to make access to inoculations more equal, began rolling out doses of vaccines to developing nations last month, and it has said it will deliver 588,000 to Papua New Guinea by June.

But in some cases, wealthier nations have failed to honor contracts, reducing the number of doses the initiative can buy, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, said in a statement last month. He warned that the pandemic would not end until everyone was vaccinated.

“This is not a matter of charity,” he said. “It’s a matter of epidemiology.”