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Panamanian health workers are going door to door to try to detect infected people to help prevent the spread of the virus with the country's health system on the verge of collapse. [AFP]

Hospitals in Panama are on the brink of collapse as coronavirus cases spike in the Central American country worst hit by the pandemic, where doctors are already exhausted.

With a population of four million, Panama has gone from 200 cases a day to 1,100 over the last few weeks.

"Our daily number of infected patients has been increasing in a sustained way to the point of passing 1,000 cases," David Villalobos, head of the intensive care unit at the Arnulfo Arias Madrid Hospital in Panama City, told AFP.

"There are no hospitals that could sustain such a number," he said.

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The sharp increase has forced authorities to adapt existing hospitals and look for new spaces, like convention centers, to boost a health system with a range of problems including long waiting lists.

"The fear of the collapse of the public system in our country is evident if the number of cases remains the same," Domingo Moreno, coordinator of a coalition of healthcare workers' unions, told AFP.

"In the next two weeks we probably won't have anywhere to put beds."

With 42,000 cases and 839 deaths, Panama has the worst official tally of coronavirus infections in the region.

'It's exhausting'

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According to official figures, close to 20,000 people are in isolation at home or in hotels. Another 1,000 are receiving hospital treatment, 159 of whom are in intensive care.

Authorities estimate that of every 100 people infected, 20 end up in hospital -- meaning that at the current rate, 200 people a day are being admitted to hospital, and 50 to intensive care.

"It's exhausting, sometimes we have to go back at night for admissions. But here we are," Giselle Sanchez, a doctor caring for the most serious COVID-19 patients, told AFP.

Doctors and nurses around the country have protested in recent weeks demanding medical supplies and protective equipment.

"There's fear of infection, of being in a situation that puts your life at risk. This is a war of attrition," said Moreno.

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President Laurentino Cortizo recently pledged to carry out 4,000 tests a day to find and isolate those infected.

But some people, like Silda Idalia Rios, are afraid of taking the test because of rumors circulating about the pandemic.

The virus "has come to attack us", she told AFP, conceding that "you need to accept that you have to take a test to see if it's positive".

Health Minister Francisco Sucre said he was aware of a significant group of people continuing to go out despite knowing they had contracted COVID-19, making it harder to get the outbreak under control.

"We are directly dependent on what the people can do or prevent in the street. The people really need to understand that we're going to collapse," said Malena Urrutia, from the COVID-19 coordination team at the Arnulfo Arias Madrid Hospital.

Cortizo said: "As president I would like to tell you that it's over, but it isn't. We still don't have a vaccine. The battle goes on."

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