Portugal, struggling to contain an outbreak that has led to the highest death rate in Europe, has rapidly filled the beds in intensive care units established for Covid-19 patients and is being forced to create spaces by diverting spaces meant for other critical care patients.
With emergency rooms overwhelmed, particularly in the capital region of Lisbon, hospitals have asked patients to try to treat themselves at home, and the government has reached out to other European countries for assistance.
Some patients have also been airlifted to island hospitals or moved to hospitals in regions not as badly affected.
For those who do show up at hospitals in Lisbon, they are finding a system on the brink, with scores of people lining up outside and waiting to be diagnosed in idling ambulances parked outside.
“We are managing the full capacity of the country,” Pedro Siza Vieira, the Portuguese economy minister, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. While new infections appeared to be falling in some regions, the outbreak in Lisbon was still raging.
“We are looking at a couple of weeks that will be difficult,” he added.
Mr. Siza Vieira himself contracted Covid-19 last month, and about a third of the government’s ministers have also caught the illness recently, or had to isolate after being in contact with a person who had Covid-19.
Portugal, a nation of about 10 million on the Iberian Peninsula, is in the grips of its worst crisis of the pandemic, and 5,000 people died in January.
During the first wave of Covid-19, Portugal was one of the success stories of Europe, after applying a strict lockdown that helped keep its death toll low, particularly in comparison with neighboring Spain.
But since Christmas, Portugal has faced a surge in infections and fatalities.
Government officials have said that the crisis has been amplified by the spread of the Covid-19 variant first discovered in Britain. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal told a recent news conference that the variant accounted for more than 50 percent of new infections in his country.
Mr. Siza Vieira, the economy minister, said on Tuesday, “We don’t have evidence of the Brazilian variant being significantly active in Portugal while we have evidence that the U.K. variant explains more than half of new cases, particularly in the Lisbon area.”
However, British officials have expressed their own concern about the spread in Portugal of the variant first discovered in Brazil, leading Britain to announce travel restrictions on its European neighbor.
The travel ban was part of wave of new border closures around the world as countries raced to vaccinate their populations while trying to limit the spread of new variants.
Whatever is driving infections in Portugal, new cases are only now starting to show signs of slowing after a national lockdown was reinstated in mid-January.
The defense minister in Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that the country was preparing to dispatch army personnel and equipment to Portugal, noting that all of those deployed would be vaccinated.
And Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria announced on Twitter that his country would welcome some patients transferred from Portugal, without detailing how many.
Ricardo Baptista Leite, an opposition lawmaker in Portugal who is also a medical doctor and head of the public health department at the Catholic University of Portugal, said he was grateful for the support.
“We now have international aid coming in to try to save as many lives as we can,” he said. “But the time will come to assess what went wrong.”