Central Europe braced for third wave of coronavirus

Officials in the Czech Republic have warned that the country’s health system is on the brink of “absolute exhaustion” and may need help from abroad, as central Europe braces for a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past two weeks the country has recorded 968 new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people, the EU’s highest infection rate in per-capita terms, forcing many hospitals to delay non-Covid-related treatment.

Vladimir Cerny, deputy health minister, told a press conference on Tuesday that if the trend continued, hospital capacity would be overwhelmed within two to three weeks, and said that the government was considering asking other EU states to take in patients.

“We are starting to talk about help from abroad. So far, the only official offer came from Germany, which offered a place for nine patients,” Cerny said. “The current free capacity of hospitals in the Czech Republic is about 15 per cent.”

Cerny’s warning comes amid broader concerns in central Europe about a renewed upturn in caseloads across the region, accompanied in some countries by the arrival of the variant that first emerged in the UK.

Chart showing early stages of a fresh surge in Coronavirus cases in central Europe

Slovakia — where a one-day screening exercise earlier this month found that the strain was responsible for 74 per cent of new cases — has suffered the highest number of Covid-19 deaths per capita in the world over the past week.

Foreign minister Ivan Korcok said on Monday that he would ask other EU countries to send additional vaccines to Slovakia to help it cope with the “tragic” situation in the 5.4m-strong nation, where the death toll has topped 100 per day several times in the past two weeks.

“I fully realise that other countries have a vaccine shortage as well but Slovakia now, also based on the fact that we have the highest death rate, at the moment needs it most,” he told reporters in Brussels, according to Reuters.

In Poland, where new variants now account for 10 per cent of new infections, officials are mulling tougher rules on mask wearing, and tighter border controls.

Line chart of Patients in hospital with Covid per 100k people showing Hospitalisations are on the rise in most central European countries

Health minister Adam Niedzielski warned on Monday Poland was facing “more or less a month of unbroken rises [in case numbers]”, and that the third wave would peak only in late March or early April.

“So far the prognoses suggest that the peak of this third wave will average around 10,000-12,000 cases per day, which from the point of view of the health system itself is a number we have coped with,” he told broadcaster TVN24, before adding that “this is a scenario with a big question mark attached”.

Hungary has also experienced a sharp upturn in new cases, with infection numbers over the past seven days 50 per cent higher than in the previous seven. Deaths have also surged.

Hungary’s chief medical officer Cecilia Muller said the ebb of the second wave in central Europe was disrupted by the arrival of the third, meaning that the latter wave was “starting from a higher level” than its predecessor. 

At her daily press briefing, she warned that the “highly virulent British variant” was present in Hungary and warned that “the possibility of asymptomatic infection is much more dangerous”.

Workers at Budapest airport in Hungary unload a cargo of Sinopharm vaccines this month © Zoltan Mathe/MTI/AFP

Budapest hopes that an aggressive vaccination campaign — assisted by 5m doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which will start being administered on Wednesday — will help slow the infection rate. 

Hungary was the first EU country to approve the Sinopharm vaccine, along with Sputnik V, the jab developed by a Russian investment fund. The country’s rightwing premier Viktor Orban said he would be taking the Chinese vaccine because it was the one he “trusts” most. 

The surge in infections in central Europe has also sparked concerns in neighbouring countries. Germany tightened controls on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria last week in an effort to stem the spread of new cases.