KYJOV, Czech Republic – Soldiers in Poland test for coronavirus. US National Guard troops with medical training are heading to the Czech Republic to work with doctors there. A student from a Czech university takes blood samples in laboratories, and the mayor of the capital takes shifts in a hospital.
As cases increase in many Central European countries, firefighters, students and retired doctors are being asked to help strengthen distorted health systems.
“It’s actually appalling,” said Dr. Piotr Suwalski, head of the cardiac surgery department at a Polish hospital, on a day when the daily incidence of COVID-1
Even before the pandemic, many countries in the region faced a tragic shortage of medical staff due to years of underfunding in their public health sectors and the relocation of doctors and nurses to better paid jobs in Western Europe after the countries joined the European Union. in 2004. Now, with the virus spreading to their hospitals, many healthcare workers are ill, complicating the shortage.
More than 13,200 medical staff in the Czech Republic are infected, including 6,000 nurses and 2,600 doctors, according to the union.
It’s not just clinicians who need these countries. Both Poland and the Czech Republic are building field hospitals as beds are filled in wards, and authorities say there are only 12 ventilators left in all hospitals receiving COVID-19 patients in the region around Warsaw, the Polish capital.
This may sound familiar, but not to these countries. Many in the region imposed severe restrictions in the spring – including the sealing of borders and the closure of schools, shops and restaurants – and saw very low levels of infection, even when the virus killed tens of thousands in Western Europe.
But now many Central European countries see an attack similar to what their western neighbors are experiencing – and the same terrible warnings.
After announcing new restrictions last week, Czech Prime Minister Andrei Babis has set a date when his country’s healthcare system will collapse if new regulations are not imposed to slow the spread of the virus: between November 7th and 11th.
With one of the highest levels of infection in Europe, hospitals in the Czech Republic are desperately looking for volunteers. The government is sending thousands of medical students to hospitals and other students to testing sites.
In the capital of Prague, Mayor Zdenek Hrib, a medical graduate, joined in to help make initial tests for possible coronavirus patients at a university hospital. Twenty-eight medical personnel from the Nebraska and Texas National Guard are expected to arrive soon to help treat patients at a military hospital in Prague and a new field hospital at the city’s exhibition grounds.
Croatia has asked former doctors to retire to help with hospitals, while Slovenia has put retired doctors and current medical students on standby in case its situation worsens.
Poland, meanwhile, has mobilized troops to test for COVID-19 so that medical professionals can focus on helping patients as the National Stadium in Warsaw and other spaces are transformed into field hospitals. Three times this week, the country reported new record levels of daily infections, and on Thursday also announced a record number of daily deaths – 301.
In Poland, mortality among people with cancer and other diseases is also on the rise, as doctors and nurses simply cannot cope with their care, said Suwalski, head of the cardiac surgery department at the Interior Ministry’s hospital in Warsaw, the capital’s main coronavirus hospital.
“The number of victims of this pandemic is not just patients dying directly from COVID-19,” Suwalski said. “There are also (patients) who die due to changing conditions and even the collapse of the medical system.”
The problem is particularly acute in hospitals in small towns that do not have the resources of university medical centers, such as Kiev, a southeastern Czech city of 11,000.
The director of the hospital there, Lubomir Wenzl, says staff became critical in October as the number of patients with COVID-19 doubled in three weeks to almost 60, and 75 of the medical staff fell ill.
He appealed for volunteers on social media and received so many offers that the hospital could choose who it needed. Most often, the hospital selects people who have some medical training. They keep a list of others they can call if they need them.
“I have strong arms and legs and this is something like a firefighter I can do,” said Antonin Kucar, deputy mayor and volunteer firefighter who helped move patients around the hospital.
Wojciech Kufal, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Brno, also answered the call. The 20-year-old man was trained in first aid and supervised blood samples around the hospital campus.
While the help of volunteers is vital, their roles are clearly limited, said Dr. Jiri Vihnal, head of the intensive care unit in Kiev, which treats patients with COVID-19 in a serious condition.
“It is impossible for these doctors to be replaced by anyone else because you need a long time to gain experience to become a good intensive care specialist,” said Vinal. “The problem is that a small group of doctors and nurses will have to take care of a large number of patients treated with pulmonary ventilation.”
As the number of coronavirus patients increased, the hospital closed several wards: for ears, nose and throat, neurology, rehabilitation and orthopedics.
“We were forced to stop doing planned operations, but we have to continue with emergencies,” said Wenzl, the hospital’s director.
Meanwhile, the intensive care unit has 11 patients and can accommodate up to 18, according to Vyhnal.
He said he and his staff were ready to work on their weekends “to prevent the Italian scenario”, citing how congested the hospitals there were.
“We will do everything,” he said. “But of course we’re afraid, who wouldn’t be?”
Gera reports from Warsaw, Poland. Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.