‘I thought I was going to die.’ Inside Venezuela’s mandatory quarantine motels

The woman’s voice shakes as she recalls her quarantine days in a Venezuela motel.

“I sometimes am sleeping at night and I wake up thinking I am in the motel,” she says, tearing up. “I still feel traumatized.”

She, like the more than two dozen healthcare professionals or aid workers we spoke with to inform this report, asked CNN not to reveal their identity for fear of reprisal from the Venezuelan government.

Her ordeal began when her father died in the once-oil rich city of Maracaibo, in northeastern Venezuela. Doctors suspected that he was a victim of Covid-19, though test results were inconclusive. Still in mourning, his whole family was required to take a rapid test. Hers also came back inconclusive.

From that point on, her life was completely controlled by Venezuela’s government, she says — from where she slept to what she ate. “I was immediately isolated from that moment on. I heard nothing from my family, I didn’t have any contact with them, I couldn’t get anywhere near them,” she says. “I felt frustrated, I thought I was going to die.”

First she was put in a government-run diagnostics center for three days, where she says she shared a room with no air conditioning with four other patients. She had to share a dirty bathroom with the other suspected cases, two of whom, she says, “were in very poor health.”

Then she was told she would be transferred to a motel.

Unsanitary, crowded and prison-like

​Doctors we spoke to say Venezuela’s government has been using motels and other makeshift facilities to quarantine patients suspected of having the novel coronavirus, in a bid to separate them from the general population and keep them from overburdening the country’s already depleted and crumbling hospitals. But these facilities have earned a reputation for being unsanitary, crowded and prison-like, with many Venezuelans fearing being locked inside them.

“I couldn’t do anything. It upset me, it bothered me,” she says, recalling begging officials to let her quarantine at home. “I told them that other countries isolate people inside their homes.”

She argued that she didn’t need medical surveillance — she felt fine, and had no symptoms. But ​authorities were unmoved. The mother of three was sent to a motel run by a local councilman with the help of three to four Cuban doctors, she says, estimating that about 100 suspected Covid-19 patients were held there in total.

Conditions at the motel were slightly better than at the diagnostics center but still uncomfortable, the woman said: She was given her own room, with her own bathroom, but that was about it. Like in the rest of Maracaibo, electricity was intermittent, which meant there was little use for the air conditioning or the TV in her room, and the toilet only functioned intermittently. She was given drinking water twice a day and in very limited quantities; and personal hygiene items were in short supply.

“I spent five days without toothpaste,” she recalls.

She ​says she received no medical care other than testing and regular temperature measurements, and was forbidden from leaving her room, which was never cleaned during her stay. Food was given to her in small quantities and some meals were skipped, she says, prompting protests by other patients on social media.

But she says the worst was when she asked staff at the motel for feminine hygiene products. “They told me they were going to provide me with personal hygiene supplies… they gave them to me 15 days later,” she says. “My sister went to the motel entrance several times to bring me the personal hygiene supplies and they told her that I wouldn’t need anything because they’d provide me with everything.”

After 23 days inside, she was eventually cleared to leave. She ​says she never received a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test while she was inside, which detects the genetic information of the virus and is the best way of diagnosing those with Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization. She says she was given four rapid tests, which only detect antibodies in the patient’s blood.

“The first two [tests], I didn’t see the results, but the last two I knew they were negative,” she says. “I felt I was in there longer than I should’ve been.”

Her story is far from unique, according to several doctors and nurses — especially in Maracaibo, where mandatory quarantine is one of few available tactics to contain the coronavirus.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to multiple requests for comment about conditions in hospitals and quarantine motels, or about its testing for Covid-19.

‘One dies, another one comes in’

Maracaibo used to be a success story in Latin America, a powerhouse built on the economic boon brought by Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves, with a gleaming Central University Hospital. But after years of mismanagement and lack of investment in the hospital, doctors say the hospital now has only nine available ICU beds, six hours of running water per day, intermittent power and one x-ray machine that hasn’t worked in months.

This lack of equipment and basic infrastructure to deal with the novel coronavirus is a countrywide affliction in the impoverished country, with hospitals even in the wealthier capital of Caracas plagued by shortages of pharmaceutical supplies and even disinfectant. Today, one Venezuelan doctor told CNN that “approximately half” of hospitals designated to treat Covid-19 patients don’t have enough personal protective equipment, water, or electricity.

“The world wasn’t ready to deal with the coronavirus, but with a humanitarian and economic crisis of the kind we have in Venezuela, it’s just much worse,” a surgical nurse said. Amid the pandemic, packed Venezuelan hospitals can only take patients in when beds free up, operating like revolving doors, he said. “One dies, another one comes in.”

Official data on the number of people who have been put under state-managed quarantine is not publicly available, but doctors, NGO workers and other experts told CNN that at least half of the more than 45,000 people officially listed as having recovered from Covid-19 likely spent time in a mandatory quarantine facility.

The authoritarian regime of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has touted this strategy, claiming victory over the virus with some of the lowest Covid-19 numbers in Latin America: just 485 official deaths among 60,540 officially confirmed cases as of September 13.

But experts say the number of deaths and cases may be severely underreported due to insufficient testing, and overreliance on rapid antibody testing, which is considered less reliable than the WHO-recommended PCR tests.

Several NGOs and doctors told CNN that they believe many infections go unreported, and that in some cases patients die without even knowing they had Covid-19. “There’s at least twice as many cases than what is reported as deceased in the official lists, of people who died with acute respiratory symptoms, who most likely had Covid-19 and which are not in the definition of the ministry,” one doctor told CNN.

The threat of quarantine may further muddle Venezuela’s coronavirus statistics, as some citizens would rather suffer in silence and hide in their homes than be identified as ​possibly having been exposed to the virus and end up in a motel for weeks.

“Several people called me asking what they should do to avoid going to the hospital because they are afraid, afraid of being put in a motel,” the surgical nurse said.

For them, the fear is not just of catching Covid-19, but what the government will do to you if it finds out.