PRAGUE – A record surge of new coronavirus infections in the Czech Republic in September has been followed by a record number of virus patients being hospitalized, putting the nation's health care system under serious pressure for the first time in the pandemic.
After relaxing almost all virus restrictions in the summer, the Czech government has responded to the new spike by declaring a state of emergency on Wednesday. That has been accompanied by strict restrictions ranging from limiting public events to a ban on singing at churches and schools.
The Czech Republic faced a record surge of new COVID-19 cases two weeks ago with more than 3,000 testing positive in one day. On Wednesday, it hit almost 3,000 new cases again.
On Tuesday, 151 COVID-19 patients were admitted at hospitals across the country, bringing the total number of those hospitalized to 976. Of them, 202 needed intensive care. All three categories are records.
“(The outbreak) is not under control at this very moment,” Petr Smejkal, chief epidemiologist at the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague, told The Associated Press.
September was by far the worst month for the country of nearly 10.7 million people. The number of all infected went up by more than 46,000 from 24,616 to 70,771, according to government figures released Thursday. A month ago, only 172 virus patients were being treated in hospitals and 35 were in intensive care wards.
“We have quite a robust health care system,” Smejkal said. “But the bottleneck of the system is not the ventilators and the machines. The bottleneck is the staff.”
Hospitals in the country have 6,000 beds assigned for COVID-19 patients and another 1,000 at intensive care wards.
“So, you can estimate that at the end of October, with only 1,000 ICU beds empty, they can easily fill up. (Then) all of the ICU capacity could be filled up and then you won’t have staff and you won’t be able to take care of other things besides COVID,” he said.
Some 1,700 Czech medical personnel have been infected, while others have been quarantined or remain home with their children.
Health care labor unions have urged hospitals to re-employ former staffers and to ask medical students for help. A major hospital in Uherske Hradiste county, the hardest hit area in the country with over 256 people infected per 100,000 inhabitants in the last seven days, has postponed all non-urgent operations for next week and was planning to send some coronavirus patients to nearby hospitals.
After health authorities acknowledged they could not properly trace the contacts of those infected in Prague, the capital, 250 police officers will be trained to help.
Smejkal said testing also needs to be increased because currently up to 12% of all those tested are positive.
“This should be down to 5%. If not, you're still missing a lot of people who are positive and who can spread the disease,” he added.
Of the country's 658 confirmed virus deaths, 217 of them came in September.
Experts say all numbers worldwide understate the true toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, missed cases or data manipulation by some governments, among other factors.
On the positive side, Smejkal said doctors now have more experience treating COVID-19 patients and people getting ill now may have a lower viral load since they were outside most of the summer and others were taking precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.
“There’s some good news in all this mess,” he said.