BARCELONA: An ambulance driver wearing a white protective gown enters a Barcelona hotel and announces the arrival of three new "customers" -- a trio of coronavirus patients discharged from hospital into luxury quarantine.
"Good morning! How are you? My name is Enrique Aranda and I am probably the first non health care worker you see in several days," says the director of the five-star Melia Sarria hotel, peering into the ambulance.
It took just three days to convert the hotel, which features contemporary decor and bathrooms with marble finishing, into a clinic. "Some patients arrive thinking that they were taken out of hospital to be left to die, many people are frightened. I try to make them forget all that," said Aranda, wearing mask and gloves.
"I don't let them out of the ambulance until I get a smile out of them. I want them to enter in another way, that they see that they aren't in a hospital anymore, it is a hotel."
Instead of arriving with a suitcase, the hotel's new clients carry bags containing just a few personal belongings and their medical report. They are not welcomed by bellhops, but by a team of nurses wearing green or blue gowns, gloves and face masks.
As soon as patients enter, the nurses take their temperature, revise their medical reports and ask if they need to contact any family member while hotel employees assign them to a room.
The government ordered all hotels to shut to fight the pandemic, which has so far claimed 10,935 lives in Spain -- the world's second-highest toll after Italy.
Hotels across the country have been converted into medical care centres to free up beds in hospitals which have been flooded with COVID-19 cases.
In the Madrid region, the hardest-hit area in Spain and the first to adopt the measure, there are now just over 700 patients in quarantine in hotels.
In second-city Barcelona, hoteliers have made 2,500 beds available. The Melia Sarria opened to patients on March 29 and currently has 107 guests with 50 more expected each day until all 307 rooms are full.
"They are cases of people who are already OK, who have passed through the hospital and are in the final phase of their recovery here, in the hotel," said Gemma Fanlo, a nurse at the facility.
Staff at a nearby health clinic work round the clock to monitor COVID-19 patients recovering in hotels or at home, either in person or virtually, while at the same time still treating people needing help for other ailments.
"Healthcare professionals are working longer hours, and are even working from home, to ensure no one is left untreated. We are working at full stretch," said Belen Enfedaque, care director of Barcelona's network of health care clinics.
Catalonia's regional health minister Alba Verges said these workers were the "containment line" that is preventing admissions to already overloaded hospitals.
Inside the hotel, contact between people is kept to a minimum. There is an elevator for staff and one for patients. The hallways are silent. Patients receive four meals a day, which are left outside their rooms. A staff member knocks on the door and the patient must count to five before opening it.
Relatives of the patients cannot enter the hotel and most leave clothes or magazines, laptops or other devices for their loved ones with staff outside.
"I am bringing this bag for my wife's aunt, who was hospitalised with pneumonia and they have sent her here now," said a middle-aged man who declined to be named.
"She is doing OK. Her daughter not so much... she is in the intensive care unit but her mother still does not know."
The conversion of the hotels into care facilities has given their staff, who would have been out of work otherwise, a boost.
"It's very moving, said Marga Carballo who is now in charge of the Melia Sarria hotel's reception. "At home I felt bad watching all this without being able to help."