The third wave of Covid pushes the Polish healthcare system to its limits

After Michal Drozdz, a Warsaw paramedic, pulls up outside a hospital, his ambulance often has to queue for hours before his patients are admitted.

“It’s been happening all the time for three weeks. Every shift comes with a real threat that you’ll have to spend waiting outside a hospital, ”he said. “Sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes six. . . Meanwhile, you can’t help anyone, that’s what this job should be. ”

It is not only Warsaw that is in difficulty. Across Poland, the healthcare system has been drawn to its limits as the central European nation struggles through its most difficult days in the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Infections have increased since early March and hit their highest daily level on April 1 since the start of the pandemic. During the last fortnight, Poland recorded 989 houses per 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest figure in the EU. Deaths have reached record levels and the number of people in hospitals and on ventilators with Covid-19 has also reached all-time highs.

“The scale is incomparable [with the first wave]Drozdz said. “At the time, there were a few confirmed cases by district. Now that’s a couple of building confirmed cases. ”

As elsewhere in Europe, the outbreak was caused by the arrival of the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first sequenced in the UK, which in recent weeks has accounted for 90 percent of new cases in Poland.

A nurse takes care of patients in an emergency department in Bochnia, Poland. The country has the lowest number of practicing doctors per capita in the EU © Omar Marques / Getty Images

But critics say the government too made mistakes who let the tension spread faster: first, by not applying sufficiently stringent controls to the thousands of Poles who returned from the UK for Christmas; and second, easing restrictions in mid-February once the UK variant was already in circulation.

The huge influx of patients left the healthcare system in shock. Although about a quarter of Covid-19 beds and 20% of ventilators are always free, they are not always in the same place as the people who need them.

Some 150 patients had to be moved from the southern Silesian region to other areas this month after the local hospitals overflowed. In the Mazovia region, authorities were so concerned about the supply of oxygen before Easter that doctors were urged to limit its use.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of staff, the result of years of high emigration and chronic underfunding of the health system. A Eurostat study in 2018, Poland had the lowest number of practicing physicians per capita in the EU, with only 238 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“It’s not just Covid that’s the problem. He just highlighted how inadequate our health system is, ”said a young doctor recently sent to work with Covid patients at a Warsaw hospital.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, the government imposed new restrictions in mid-March, which it extended last week until April 18. , and has repeatedly increased the number of Covid beds and ventilators in Polish hospitals.

Medical staff in the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Krakow. The government has used powers forcing medical professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients © Omar Marques / Getty Images

Health minister Adam Niedzielski said on Friday there were signs the spike in infections was starting to wane and a peak in hospitalizations was imminent. He added that Poland would also speed up its vaccination campaign by expanding the groups of people allowed to kick.

“[Accelerating vaccinations] is the only possible response, given the resources available, to fight the pandemic and get out of the third wave, ”he said. “It is a very difficult time and therefore special solutions are needed.”

Yet doctors at hospitals in hard-hit areas are still scrambling to cope, with small teams juggling large numbers of critically ill patients. The Warsaw doctor said a particular challenge for the new staff was helping patients who needed intubation because their oxygen levels were dropping – a procedure normally performed by specialists.

“You just have to wait for the anesthesiologist to call,” she says. “You don’t get emotional because that’s what we do on a day-to-day basis – but you feel a little lacking as a doctor. . . You feel helpless.

Shortages have left medical staff with enormous workloads. “[My colleagues] are exhausted. You don’t have to ask, you can see it when they leave their shift. I just finished my first shifts and it was the most difficult day and a half of my life, ”said a second doctor recently deployed to a Covid patient hospital in Warsaw. “Those who have been working here since February already seem seriously ill.”

To boost their energy, some doctors resorted to giving themselves oxygen and intravenous infusions, according to Polish media. Asked about the reports by Radio RMF24, Niedzielski admitted that the staff shortages were “noticeable” and called Polish doctors “heroes”. “It really is a war and the situation requires non-standard behavior,” he said.

In addition to exhaustion, doctors also have to deal with the psychological pressure associated with such a frequent confrontation with death. Treating couples where one partner was much sicker than the other, or parents who would not survive, was particularly difficult, the second doctor said.

“Sometimes it’s not easier. . . to bond with patients because then, when they die, I feel like I have lost a loved one myself, someone I fed and gave to drink, whose hand I held She said.

“But on the other hand… I can’t imagine completely cutting off all those emotions. You have to find the right balance. But it’s not easy.

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