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Coronavirus Infections Increase Sharply as Central Europe Sounds Alarm

A man wears a mask as demonstrators gather to protest the COVID-19 preventative measures downtown Prague, Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A man wears a mask as demonstrators gather to protest the COVID-19 preventative measures downtown Prague, Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Virus Surges as Central Europe Sounds Alarm
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Soldiers in Poland are giving coronavirus tests. United States National Guard troops with medical training are going to the Czech Republic to work with doctors there. A Czech university student is taking blood to be tested, and the mayor of Prague is working at a hospital.

With coronavirus cases rising in central Europe, firefighters, students and retired doctors are being asked to help failing health care systems.

“This is actually terrifying,” Piotr Suwalski said. He is a doctor and the head of the heart surgery department at a Polish hospital. He spoke with an Associated Press reporter on a day when daily COVID-19 cases rose 20 percent across the country.

“I think if we continue to gain 20 percent a day, no system can withstand it,” he added.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries in the area had a shortage of medical workers. This resulted from years of cuts in health care spending. After these countries joined the European Union in 2004, many of their doctors and nurses left for better paying jobs in Western Europe.

Now, some of the health care workers who stayed in Central Europe have caught the virus. Over 13,200 medical workers across the Czech Republic have been infected, noted a labor union representing the doctors. That number includes 2,600 doctors and 6,000 nurses.

Both Poland and the Czech Republic are building field hospitals as hospital beds fill up. Polish officials said there are only 12 ventilators left in all hospitals taking COVID-19 patients around Warsaw, the capital.

Shortages of medical equipment may sound familiar, but not for these countries.

Many in the area had strong health safety measures in the spring. They closed their borders, schools, restaurants and stores. As a result, the infection rate was very low.

As the virus killed tens of thousands in Western Europe, Central Europe thought it had escaped the worst of it. No longer.

This month, while announcing new restrictions, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis set a date on when his country’s health system would collapse without taking action: between November 7 and 11.

The Czech Republic has one of the highest infections rates in Europe. The government is sending thousands of medical students to hospitals and other students to testing areas.

The mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, volunteered to help do exams of possible coronavirus patients at a university hospital. As a young man, he completed a study program in medicine.

Soon, 28 medical personnel from the United States are expected to arrive to help treat patients at Prague’s military hospital. The U.S. workers are members of the Nebraska and Texas national guards.

Croatia has asked former doctors to come out of retirement to help in hospitals. Slovenia has asked retired doctors and medical students to be ready to assist in hospitals soon.

Polish soldiers are doing COVID-19 testing, so trained experts can work in hospitals with patients. Three times this past week, Poland reported new record highs in daily infections. On Thursday, it also announced its highest number of daily deaths, at 301.

At the Interior Ministry Hospital in Warsaw, deaths among people with cancer and other diseases are rising because medical workers cannot keep up with their care, noted Suwalski.

“The numbers of victims of this pandemic are… also (patients) who die because of the change of conditions, and even the collapse of the medical system,” he added.

It is worse in small towns, such as the one in Kyjov, a town of 11,000 in the southeastern Czech Republic.

Lubomir Wenzl is the director of the hospital there. He said the number of COVID-19 patients doubled in just three weeks to almost 60. Then, doctors and other hospital workers caught the virus.

Many volunteers offered to help, but their work is limited.

Dr. Jiri Vyhnal is the head of the intensive care department. His office treats COVID-19 patients in serious condition.

“It’s impossible to replace those doctors by anyone else, because you need a long time to gain experience to become a good intensive care specialist,” he said. “The problem is that a small group of doctors and nurses will have to take care of a high number of patients.”

The intensive care department, meanwhile, has 11 patients and can accept up to 18, he explained.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

surgery - n. performing an operation on the human body

department - n. a unit or area of an organization

pandemic - n. a contagious disease that spreads to many countries

nurse - n. one who assists a doctor

ventilator - n. a machine that helps a person breath

familiar - adj. something that is known already to someone