By Eduardo Simões and Lisandra Paraguassu
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Hundreds of Brazilian business leaders and economists blasted President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus crisis on Monday and called for a new policy approach as the country grapples with spiking COVID-19 deaths and overwhelmed hospitals.
The letter, published in newspapers and signed by former central bank chiefs and some of Brazil's richest bankers, underscored a growing revolt by business leaders against the far-right president whom many had backed for his 2018 election.
Without naming Bolsonaro, they upbraided "the country's highest political leadership" for ignoring science, encouraging crowds, hyping unproven treatments and "flirting with the anti-vaccine movement."
Speaking at an event in Brasilia, Bolsonaro did not mention the letter, but rattled off a list of economic achievements of his government during the pandemic.
He said he was still unconvinced by arguments in favor of COVID-19 restrictions, saying they only served to kill jobs and further impoverish the poor. He added that Brazil's focus should be on destroying the virus and not attacking his government.
A surge of infections has made Brazil the latest epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, killing more than 15,000 people last week and pushing hospitals across the country to the limit.
On Monday, Rio de Janeiro and the neighboring city of Niterói announced a 10-day tightening of restrictions that includes the closure of non-essential services and schools, as well as a nighttime curfew.
Brazil's government is racing to obtain fresh supplies of drugs needed to safely intubate patients, Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, said on Monday, after concerns of shortages arose this month. [L1N2LK1NN]
"We are on the verge of an explosive phase of the pandemic, and it is fundamental that, from now on, public policy be based on data, solid information and scientific evidence," wrote the business leaders and economists.
"The country is tired of out-of-place ideas, inconsequential words and late or mistaken actions," they said. "Brazil demands respect."
Among the signatories were Roberto Setubal and Pedro Moreira Salles, whose families control Itau, Brazil's biggest bank, Pedro Passos, co-founder of cosmetics maker Natura & Co, and former central bank presidents Gustavo Loyola and Arminio Fraga.
In a broadside against the government, they called for more urgency in obtaining vaccines, free masks for the needy, better federal coordination on the pandemic and consideration of a national or regional lockdown strategy.
The message from such prominent economists and bankers cut at Bolsonaro's core political argument that he has defended jobs by opposing lockdowns, which the letter called a "false choice between saving lives and ensuring support for the vulnerable."
"It's not reasonable to expect an economic recovery in an out-of-control epidemic," they wrote.
Separately on Monday, Sao Paulo's state government said it had obtained guarantees from oxygen suppliers that they will be able to keep up supply for public hospitals, and announced that brewer AmBev will also produce the gas at one of its plants in the state.
(Reporting by Tatiana Bautzer and Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes, Louise Heavens and Bill Berkrot)