BUENOS AIRES — When Augusto Briceño hugged his mother in her bed in the COVID-19 intensive-care ward, he said he sensed the warmth of her body through his protective gloves, and felt full of peace.
“I closed my eyes and tried to forget the gloves were there,” the 59-year-old pediatrician said. He stroked her hair and soon after, she died.
Despite his grief, Briceño said he felt lucky.
The Mater Dei sanatorium in Buenos Aires is one of the few but growing number of medical facilities in Latin America that allow relatives to be with patients dying of the novel coronavirus, clad in face covering, shield and protective clothing against infection.
Visits to COVID patients are becoming normal in Europe and more common in the United States.
Britain eased its rules on visiting COVID-19 patients in April after politicians and the public were horrified to hear that 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab died alone in a London hospital after contracting the virus.
In Germany at the start of the outbreak, hospitals across the country ended all patient visits as a precaution, but reinstated them in May with restrictions. At Berlin’s largest hospital, Charité, patients are allowed only one visitor per day, though those considered seriously ill have no such restrictions. But at the same time, visitors are restricted on a case-by-case basis for patients deemed to be still infectious.
In Spain, most hospitals and nursing homes now allow such visits in a controlled environment. At Madrid’s 12 de Octubre Hospital, one of the biggest in the Spanish capital, relatives are given protective equipment and have to take turns in going into the patient’s room or intensive care unit. Such visits are still barred in Italy.
In Latin America, hit relatively late by the novel coronavirus, family visits remain rare regionwide. Some hospitals in Chile and Brazil allow them. At least 11 hospitals in Argentina already allow them, and more are considering it, according to physicians consulted by The Associated Press.
Fernanda Mariotti’s mother was hospitalized in another facility in Buenos Aires, where doctors refused to let her daughter see her because the facility’s rules for COVID-19 patients did not allow it.
Mariotti, 53 and also a pediatrician, said she was convinced her mother’s death last month was due partly to “the pain and fear” of feeling separated from her family.
Mariotti launched an online campaign pushing for hospitals to allow visits to critically ill coronavirus patients, and has seen many responses from around the region, many recounting traumatic tales of isolation from dying loved ones.
She says aging or disabled patients in particular needed visits from at least one relative.
Argentina has had roughly 370,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,000 deaths.
Cristian García Roig, the head of pediatric intensive care at Mater Dei, said he believed that if medical staff could safely treat COVID patients, relatives could safely visit them using the same precautions.
Starting in April, Mater Dei began to allow relatives 15-minute visits accompanied by medical personnel.
Less seriously ill minors or patients with developmental or psychological problems are also allowed to be accompanied full-time by a relative who must complete a two-week quarantine after leaving the hospital.
The Dr. Rodolfo Rossi General Hospital in the Argentine city of La Plata allows some dying patients with COVID to be visited by a relative as long as that person is not in a high-risk group and wears protective equipment, said María de los Ángeles Mori, the hospital’s head of palliative care.
She said the ability to be with a dying loving one was more than worth the risk for many.
“Dying alone is not the same as being accompanied,” she said. “Saying goodbye and not saying goodbye are very different.”