Hungary is in “the most critical” period of its management of the coronavirus pandemic, with the country registering record infection numbers and deaths each day, the chief medical officer said earlier this week. As the nation’s healthcare nears capacity, fears are rising that the pandemic will get out of control.
The country’s Chief Medical Officer rang alarm bells on March 16 after Hungary registered 195 Covid-19 fatalities in a day. Cecília Müller told an online press conference that health authorities were doing everything in their power to bring down the death rate but warned that hospitals were close to reaching full capacity, with more than 10,000 Covid patients hospitalized and over 1,000 of them on ventilators. Müller urged the public to observe hygiene regulations and get vaccinated. “There’s no time to wait; there’s nothing to wait for,” she said, stressing that all five vaccines used in Hungary were effective in preventing serious complications from the disease. She warned that the number of newly registered cases was expected to keep rising “for the next 1-2 weeks.”
Healthcare system under strains
Hungary’s overburdened and understaffed healthcare system is being put to the most serious test since the outbreak of the pandemic last spring. As the rate of infection does not seem to be waning, the healthcare system is nearing its nationwide capacity of ventilator care. Some hospitals are already prioritizing patients with higher chances of survival, according to media reports.
The number of patients on ventilators surpassed 1,000 this week, and there is no indication that it will stop increasing any time soon. Béla Merkely, rector of Semmelweis University, previously said that the Hungarian healthcare system can effectively care for a total of 1,250 people on ventilators.
Opposition daily Népszava reported that there are currently 1,900 beds in intensive care units with access to ventilators. Nevertheless, some institutions may run out of intensive care capacity sooner than others and transporting patients suffering from respiratory difficulties to another hospital may prove impossible in certain cases. Even if the number of available ventilators were sufficient, the lack of skilled healthcare staff able to operate them is a more pressing issue.
The National Healthcare Service Center (OKFŐ) told Népszava that patients will continue to have access to hospital care and ventilators. The burden on hospitals will also decrease due to the new restrictions, a faster rate of vaccination, and the use of Favipiravir for home medication.
Non-governmental experts do not share this optimistic view. Currently, authorities do not report official data on how strained Covid-units are, according to healthcare expert Gabriella Lantos. Once the number of patients treated on ventilators exceeds 1,200 nationwide, “the ventilator will become their coffin,” Lantos said.
Pulmonologist János Mucsi warned that the virus is continuously infecting younger, healthier people, and that the 30–50-year-old age group is now the most at risk.
Ágnes Daróczy-Gaál, vice president of the Hungarian Doctors’ Union, told national TV station ATV that the healthcare system is critically understaffed and as the number of people needing hospital care rises, patients’ chances of survival decrease. “If there are 50 beds in an intensive care unit, but there is only enough personnel for 15 people, every extra patient who is taken on deteriorates the original 15 patients’ chances of survival,” she warned. If the number of people treated in hospitals continues to grow at the current rate, soon there will be 2,000-3,000 people who require a ventilator, according to Daróczy-Gaál.
Government officials are refuting claims that the country’s healthcare system could crumble under the pressure of the third wave of the pandemic. Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás declared that there is enough capacity in the system to treat as many as 10 thousand people in hospitals.
Meanwhile the grip of the epidemic is tightening further. On March 18, the number of daily deaths stood at 207, while 6,502 new infections were registered, according to data published on the official government website koronavirus.gov.hu. If the Chief Medical Officer’s projection proves true and the rate of infections continues to rise over the coming weeks, a painful moment of truth will arrive for the Hungarian healthcare system.
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