CEE starts to buckle under COVID, governments’ hesitancy puts Christmas at risk

As the number of cases steadily reach heights last seen during the spring COVID wave, the Czech and Hungarian governments will soon face tough decisions. [EPA-EFE / RAFAL GUZ]

As the number of cases reaches heights last seen during the spring COVID wave, Czech and Hungarian governments will soon face tough decisions.

The epidemic is raging, the presidency of the Hungarian Medical Chamber said in a Wednesday statement, based on new coronavirus data that showed 10,265 new infections and 178 deaths that day, with numbers rising steeply.

With 565 patients are on ventilators, doctors said there are at least one and a half, if not twice as many, patients in serious condition who need intensive care but for whom there is no room.

More than a tenth of the newly infected patients diagnosed need hospital admission. The 10% daily increase in the number of patients already in care puts a significant burden on the ambulance service and receiving hospitals, said the association representing Hungarian doctors.

Doctors, describing the situation in the Hungarian healthcare system at the moment, wrote: “emergency wards are drowning in patients even working at full throttle, newer and newer wards are being converted and opened for COVID care, ophthalmologists, urologists, surgeons and nurses are being transferred from these departments there”.

“It’s no use that there are enough machines if the staff has been dwindling since the last wave. They have fallen ill and died, burnt out and quit. And without enough specialist staff, there is no real intensive care”, they add.

Doctors also attacked the new ministerial decree that requires a minimum of one specialist, one doctor and five nurses for every 20 intensive care beds. In their view, this is a severe dilution of professional standards and regulations.

So far, COVID-related restrictions in Hungary have been relatively lax. The latest package of measures announced on 27 October gave employers the right to require workers to get the jab, made masks mandatory on public transport and closed hospitals to visitors.

To prevent “a lot of dead people for Christmas”, Hungarian medical professionals have now called for tightening of measures. Among their demands are obligatory mask-wearing in closed spaces, banning mass events, tying entrance to leisure activities to possession of COVID certificates or negative tests and encouragement of the home office.

For healthcare professionals, the Chamber asked the government to regularise on-call pay, bump up salaries and start tackling the problems of the health sector.

On Tuesday, Czechia saw the highest number of new COVID-19 cases since March 2020, with 22,479 confirmed cases. There are more than 4,000 people hospitalised of which 661 are in intensive care units. Non-urgent care has been limited in 20-30% of Czech hospitals.

Despite rising numbers of new COVID-19 cases, the Czech government has been stuck in limbo in the past few days, unable to decide on any new measures. The silence was finally broken as outgoing Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced new strict measures targeting unvaccinated people.

From 22 November, a negative test will no longer be accepted as a valid COVID certificate. It means that only vaccinated people or people who have recovered from COVID-19 can enter pubs, restaurants or mass events. The government is expected to approve new measures on Thursday.

“It seems that all the measures we implemented so far were not sufficient,” Babiš said.

According to Health Minister Adam Vojtěch, there is a severe risk that Czech hospitals will soon be overwhelmed again.

Czech vaccination rate remains under the EU average, with 58% fully vaccinated citizens. During Wednesday’s press conference, Vojtěch said that stricter measures were the only chance to secure a “relatively calm Christmas”.

(Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz ; Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com with Telex)

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