* 'The word is despair' say hospital doctors
* COVID-19 cases surge in Portugal, ambulances queue
* Government orders all schools shut
* Catholic Church suspends all public masses (Adds quotes from PM Costa)
By Catarina Demony
LISBON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Overwhelmed by record numbers of COVID-19 patients, doctors in Portuguese hospitals say they are exhausted and in despair, while the government ordered all schools and universities shut for 15 days from Friday to try to slow the contagion.
"We do not have enough human resources," said Guida da Ponte, deputy head of a doctors' union near Lisbon, adding that despite a lack of intensive-care beds, more could be set up, "but we don't have the professionals."
"Doctors are desperate. The word really is 'despair'."
Western Europe's poorest country coped well in the first wave of the pandemic last year but has been swamped in recent weeks by a faster-spreading variant of the virus, registering the world's highest infection and death rates.
Ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals, waiting for beds to become available. An elderly man died in an ambulance after waiting inside the vehicle for three hours on Tuesday in the town of Portalegre.
"We have a civic duty to reinforce our lockdown," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said, citing a rapidly-spreading contagious variant of the virus first detected in Britain, which he said could reach 60% of new COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, up from about 20% now.
"In the face of this new variant and the velocity of its transmission we must exercise caution and interrupt all school activities for the next 15 days," he said.
Parents of schoolchildren would be allowed to miss work and would receive support, while courts would also suspend non-urgent cases, he said.
The Catholic Church said earlier it was suspending all public masses from Saturday.
Without waiting for the government announcement, some local officials had already urged parents to keep their children at home.
"It is not good to come to classes as there are high-risk groups we could infect," said Frederico Nunes, 20, a university student. "I think it's annoying because this could have been avoided if the government had adopted online classes."
Ricardo Mexia, head of the association of public healthcare doctors, said authorities had failed to prepare for the new surge in infections after relaxing restrictions for the year-end holidays.
"The decision to close schools is coming too late, but it is important to reduce contagion," he said.
"We don't have the means to conduct epidemiological surveys, we haven't recruited enough people, we haven't trained people... I fear the numbers will get even worse."
Under a lockdown that started last week, all non-essential services are shut and people urged to stay home.
The government has acknowledged that holiday-time contagion played a role, but blamed the increase in cases mostly on the new variant.
The daily death toll reached a record of 221 on Thursday, bringing the total to 9,686 since the start of the pandemic. The country of 10 million people reported 13,544 infections over the last 24 hours, below Wednesday's record of 14,647.
Portugal has the world's highest rolling average of new cases, at 1,044 per million inhabitants over the last seven days, according to data tracker ourworldindata.org.
For a global coronavirus tracker, open in a separate browser: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/
(Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves and Victoria Waldersee, writing by Ingrid Melander and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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