As Medellín’s ICUs reach breaking point with the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the Colombian Air Force (FAC) is moving critically-ill patients to hospitals in Bogotá by adapting their C-295 military transport aircraft as sky ambulances. The 45-minute flight that unites the Colombia capital with the country’s second-largest city begins at Rionegro airbase Cacom 5 under command of Colonel Alejandro Vélez. “These have been some very hard days with many air operations,” claims the officer as six ambulances arrive with six patients. “These humanitarian flights had to be reactivated due to Medellín’s ICU occupancy reaching 98 percent,” he affirms. In Medellín, there are currently more than 200 people waiting to be admitted into ICUs with coronavirus complications.

The FAC team onboard an ICU flight consists of eight servicemen and women, as well as four combat-trained nurses, a general practitioner, a biomedical expert and an intensive care doctor. As the ambulances begin to move their critically ill patients, the flight crew and specialists meticulously prepare the process to preserve the lives and protect themselves from contagion. Masks, gloves, boots, and anti-fluid suits are unpacked from suitcases when the procedure is abruptly interrupted as one of the patients suffered complications after leaving the hospital in Medellín, some 30 km west of Rionegro. “Unfortunately we have to report that a few moments ago one of the patients who was waiting in the ambulance to be transferred to Bogotá has died,” remarked the captain. A hopeful moment pre-take off turns sour.

To operate as small air hospitals in the air, the planes have been equipped with a mechanical ventilator, vital signs monitor, infusion pumps, defibrillator and medical supplies required for an intensive care unit. Since the beginning of the pandemic, FAC has transferred more than 110 people in helicopters and planes that are usually used for military operations or transporting field equipment.

In these relief tasks of the coronavirus crisis, rescues and transfers have taken medical teams from the Amazon to Colombian Caribbean, but in recent days, the C-295 transporters have moved between Santa Marta, another epicenter of the pandemic, and capital of Antioquia. “Despite all the risks of aeromedical transfers, no crew member has been infected with COVID-19 during these operations, nor has a life-threatening situation been reported in the air,” claims Colonel Camilo Gómez Isaza. “All patients who enter our ‘air ICUs’ have been delivered alive into the caring of health professionals,” he adds.

On Wednesday, the country’s Ministry of Health reported 3,949 additional cases of coronavirus in Antioquia and 3,687 in Bogotá. “We have had in recent days the highest figures of the entire pandemic,” said governor Luis Fernando Suárez, adding that the department is going through “the most complex” moment since the beginning of the health crisis.

The Ministry of Health also announced that all persons aged 65 or over can begin registering for the next phase of vaccinations. The country has administered more than 3.2 million doses from pharameuticals Pfizer and Sinovac and has close to one million in storage for second doses.

Additional reporting by Jeimmy Paola Sierra/EFE

EFE/ Luis Eduardo Noriega