When the first patients with symptoms of COVID-19 appeared last month in a regional Romanian hospital, it took one doctor more than 50 calls to reach a local epidemiologist. Even then, despite fears the coronavirus was sweeping across Europe, no one at the public health office seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
The problem is now all too clear as infections surge — in many cases among the staff. The facility is the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, which has recorded more fatalities than nearby Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic combined.
“None of the safety measures were respected,” said Dr. Mircea Dinu Bordiniuc, a plastic surgeon at the Suceava hospital who has a mild case of the virus himself. “We were given one face mask a day and some of my colleagues didn’t even get that. Some patients were released without being tested. Some were only found to be positive after they died. There was a chain of bad decisions.”
Romania isn’t alone in struggling since COVID-19 fanned out across the continent from Italy. But it has a disproportionate share of infections occurring inside medical facilities. As the virus threatens to overload the system, some doctors are even quitting.
There’s arguably nowhere worse in the European Union for the pandemic to strike. Romania spends less on health care than any other member-state, has the highest mortality rate from treatable diseases and one of the bloc’s lowest life expectancies. The government has built one new hospital in three decades.
Horror stories are plentiful.
In a shocking recent case, a 66-year-old cancer sufferer with internal bleeding was accidentally set on fire by an electric scalpel during an operation. Staff threw a bucket of water over her to extinguish the flames. She died a week later.
Elsewhere, a hospital supplier was found to have endangered millions of lives by selling diluted and counterfeit disinfectants that allowed the spread of bacteria.
To make matters worse, the coronavirus is unfolding with a minority government in charge. The EU’s widest budget deficit means cash is scarce.
“We have to consider that the virus’s evolution is far from reaching its peak,” said Vlad Mixich, a health-care analyst and doctor who’s also a board member at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. “The system will reach the maximum level of endurance much faster that in other countries.”
Romania, which quickly enacted social-distancing measures as the coronavirus emerged, has 3,183 confirmed cases and 116 deaths among its 19 million population. More than 850 cases have been recorded in Suceava county alone, including 200 medical staff.
The first case in the town, located near the northern border with Ukraine and boasting a UNESCO religious site, was a 71-year-old man who returned from Lombardy, Italy. All 100,000 residents were placed under a full quarantine this week.
Almost 500,000 Romanians live and work in northern Italy, while the Mediterranean nation has been the top destination in recent years for local doctors and nurses seeking higher pay in Europe’s richer west, according to the European Commission.
Health-care staff make up 16% of COVID-19 cases in Romania — more than the 10% or less in China and Italy and even surpassed Spain’s 15%. While those currently seeking to resign face hostility from many Romanians, President Klaus Iohannis said Thursday that they need support. He’s asked the government to tap EU funds to pay a 500-euro-a-month ($540) bonus to medical employees dealing with coronavirus patients.
“Our health-care workers and doctors are the first line of defense against epidemics,” he said. “We need more than pretty words.”
Health Minister Nelu Tataru agrees.
“We had zero reserves of equipment — that was the reality we all knew and now we see the shortcomings,” he said Friday. “We’re all in a race against the clock and all in the same boat, even if all bewildered and frail.”
Romania is trying to boost local production of face masks and protective suits, with companies redirecting production lines to help. Staff at the Suceava hospital will be tested and fully equipped, according to Iohannis. The army is assuming control of it.
Bordiniuc, the doctor, frets about the same issues dogging virus-fighting efforts across Europe — insufficient testing and a lack of ventilators. It has just 1,600.
He worries that what’s happening where he works may not be a one-off.
“The situation will probably be replicated at other hospitals if they don’t start testing every medical worker — we had cases long before we knew,” Bordiniuc said.” It seems many people didn’t take the risk seriously.”