March 24 (UPI) -- Spanish soldiers have found multiple elderly people abandoned both alive and dead in nursing homes amid the coronavirus pandemic, the country's defense minister said Tuesday.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles said the Spanish military has been utilized to help disinfect nursing homes during the outbreak. According to figures from Johns Hopkins University, there are at least 39,000 cases of COVID-19 in Spain, with 2,800 deaths, the third-highest death toll in the world.
During an appearance on Telecinco's The Ana Rosa Program, she said soldiers found some residents "completely left to fend for themselves, or even dead, in their beds."
Robles declined to say how many people were discovered abandoned or the causes of death for those found dead. She said the government plans to investigate the nursing homes involved.
The government will "be strict and inflexible when dealing with the way older people are treated," she said.
Studies indicate elderly patients are more likely to be hospitalized with serious complications and die from COVID-19 than younger patients, so health officials around the world are enforcing strict care guidelines in care homes.
Health officials said normally, the bodies of people who die in nursing homes are put into cold storage at the home until a funeral home can collect them. But for those who die of suspected COVID-19, those bodies are left in their beds until they can be collected.
With the skyrocketing death toll in the country, that wait could be as long as 24 hours, BBC News reported.
To ease the burden on funeral homes, the government of Madrid has put an ice skating rink at a shopping center into service as a temporary mortuary. The Palacio de Hielo complex includes a skating rink, shops, restaurants, bowling alley and movie theater.
In addition to cleaning nursing homes, the Ministry of Defense has made phone calls to military personnel and their elderly relatives to check on their well-being and assist them.