BARCELONA – Spain’s medical community has scored a victory after a court ordered that a regional government must compensate doctors up to 49,000 euros ($56,000) each for having to work without personal protection suits during the devastating early months of the pandemic.
The lawsuit brought by a doctor’s union is the first of its kind to be won in Spain, whose health care system was pushed to the brink when COVID-19 first struck.
“This ruling is groundbreaking in Spain,” Dr. Víctor Pedrera, secretary general of the Doctors’ Union of Valencia CESM-CV that filed the suit, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Pedrera, a family doctor, said he got ill with COVID-19 shortly after it hit Spain in March 2020 and spent two months at home “quite badly off and with no idea of what was being done for treatment.”
The court in the eastern province of Alicante ruled late Tuesday that the region of Valencia failed to protect the health of its doctors during the first three months of the pandemic. The judge said the lack of personal protection suits created “a serious safety and health danger for all health workers, especially for doctors, due to their direct exposure.”
The judge ordered compensation ranging from 5,000 euros to 49,000 euros to be paid to the 153 doctors in the suit.
Doctors who were forced to work without proper protection but did not get infected nor were forced to isolate will receive 5,000 euros. The compensation increases to 15,000 euros for doctors forced to isolate, 35,000 euros for those infected but did not need hospital care, and to 49,000 euros for doctors who required hospitalization.
Valencia’s government will appeal the ruling, but regional chief Ximo Puig issued an apology to the medical workers while saying that the initial impact of the pandemic was “completely unexpected.”
The ruling said the region’s health administration failed to meet its duty to protect the doctors “from the moment it knew of the existence of COVID-19 and, in particular after the declaration of a national state of emergency."
Spain’s General Board of Doctors, which represents the regional unions, celebrated the decision in a statement to the AP, while “lamenting that it is not applicable to every doctor.” It said 121 doctors in Spain had lost their lives due to COVID-19.
Spain, like many countries, struggled to supply its health workers with personal protection suits and face masks during the first months of the pandemic. The national government imposed a strict home confinement for several weeks after declaring a state of emergency in March 2020.
The ruling comes as Spain's health care system is once more being strained by a new wave of infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, even if deaths are now much lower thanks to the country's high vaccination rate.
Nearly 25% of critical care units are occupied by COVID-19 patients and emergency workers are saying that they can barely keep up.
“We are exhausted. Emergency workers are at their limit,” said Dr. Tato Vázquez-Lima, president of the Spanish Society for Emergency Medicine.
Pedrera said more lawsuits are coming from other doctors in Valencia and he expects even more lawsuits from health workers of all types across Spain.
“I am sure that other groups of health workers and doctors from other regions will be encouraged to go forward with their own lawsuits,” Pedrera said. “This will be on the one that opens the door.”
Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic