Short of medics as virus surges, central Europe sounds alarm

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Health care workers transport a COVID-19 patient from an intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital in Kyjov to hospital in Brno, Czech Republic, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. With cases surging in central Europe, some countries are calling in soldiers, firefighters, students and retired doctors to help shore up buckling health care systems. Many faced a shortage of medical personnel even before the pandemic, and now the virus has sickened many health workers, compounding the shortfall. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

KYJOV – Soldiers in Poland are giving coronavirus tests. American National Guard troops with medical training are headed to the Czech Republic to work alongside doctors there. A Czech university student is running blood samples to labs, and the mayor of the capital is taking shifts at a hospital.

With cases surging in many central European countries, firefighters, students and retired doctors are being asked to help shore up buckling health care systems.

“This is actually terrifying,” Dr. Piotr Suwalski, the head of the cardiac surgery ward at a Polish hospital said on a day when daily COVID-19 cases rose 20% nationwide. “I think if we continue to gain 20% a day, no system can withstand it."

Even before the pandemic, many countries in the region faced a tragic shortage of medical personnel due to years of underfunding in their public health sectors and an exodus of doctors and nurses to better paying jobs in Western Europe after the nations joined the European Union in 2004. Now, with the virus ripping through their hospitals, many health workers have been sickened, compounding the shortfall.

Over 13,200 medical personnel across the Czech Republic have been infected, including 6,000 nurses and 2,600 doctors, according to the doctors’ union.

It's not just clinicians these countries need. Both Poland and the Czech Republic are building field hospitals as beds fill up on wards, and authorities say there are only 12 ventilators left in all hospitals taking COVID-19 patients in the region around Warsaw, the Polish capital.

This may sound familiar, but not for these countries. Many in the region imposed tough restrictions in the spring — including sealing borders and closing schools, stores and restaurants — and saw very low infection rates even as the virus killed tens of thousands in Western Europe.

But now many central European countries are seeing an onslaught similar to the one their western neighbors experienced — and the same dire warnings.