Yesterday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced stricter restrictions than ever before in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, including a night curfew and the closure of restaurants, museums and theaters. In addition, deferred surgeries have been discontinued to help with the overburdening of the healthcare system, which has caused an increasingly difficult situation in the past few weeks. Hospitals have been facing unmanageable challenges across the country, and the increasing workload caused by the coronavirus has pushed the system to the brink of collapse, even though it has in principle been prepared for this since the first wave in spring. Even though there are enough instruments, beds, and medicine to treat coronavirus patients, the qualified staff and the conditions necessary to protect their integrity are lacking in more and more places every day.
On Monday morning, the Prime Minister announced even stricter rules for 30 days than the measures announced during the first wave of the epidemic in the spring. He said, “if the number of people infected increases at such a rate, then our doctors, our nurses, that is our hospitals, will not be able to cope with the burden on them.”
According to the restrictions, among other things, only those who go to work are allowed out on the streets between 8 pm and 5 am, and secondary schools and higher education will switch to online learning.
Last week, Orbán already mentioned the fact that hospitals could reach the limit of their capacity by December, according to calculations. Later, he revealed that by the end of November, 2,240 intensive care units will be needed, and according to forecasts by December 10th, 4480 intensive care beds, which will mean a total of 30-32,000 hospital patients. Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller also said that although the country is doing well in terms of intensive care beds and ventilators for the time being, “these also need to be operated,” hinting that the number of doctors and nurses could be a bottleneck.
PMO Chief Gergely Gulyás painted a slightly more positive picture last week, saying that hospital capacities can even be ensured by involving medical students. He also said that the Hungarian healthcare system is currently able to treat coronavirus patients in 32,000 beds, but the total number of Hungarian hospital beds is 66-67,000, and according to the PMO Head, new ones can be released by eliminating deferred treatments.
In the meantime, however, in recent weeks there have been more and more news, or even individual and systemic calls for help from the healthcare system. Epidemic hospitals are constantly reported to be full, the number of available doctors is declining, while professional organizations have made it clear many times that the currently available staff can care for up to two thousand patients in need of intensive care, while the number of COVID-19 patients in need of hospital treatment is growing exponentially.
According to reports from healthcare workers, contrary to the official information from the government, the main institutions designated for the care of coronavirus patients are literally full, “the hospitals of the surrounding counties are full, and the mobile epidemic hospitals are almost full” as well.
But the problem not only lies in the dramatic increase in the number of – often severely ill – coronavirus patients flowing into hospitals, but also in the fact that the designated COVID wards which were expanded last week, have simply run out of staff. In Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, the government office started to assign GPs with the appropriate specialist examinations to the hospital within 24 hours, while in some hospitals according to the Hungarian Medical Chamber, as “the number of patients in hospitals and ventilators is growing, critically ill patients in COVID wards are already being treated by ophthalmologists, psychiatrists, and dentists.”
A source from the healthcare sector told news portal Telex.hu that “if there are 2,000 intensive care physicians and 2,300 intensive care nurses in the country, and they can now be helped by the 2,500 auxiliary nurses trained in a 12-hour course, this still means that at the very maximum, we are able to care for 2,000 patients in need of ventilation and intensive therapy.”
Adequate staffing is a major challenge in the healthcare system, even without the epidemic, as many people have left the country, but now more and more doctors and nurses are dropping out of the system due to infection – either because they catch the coronavirus or because of their age or endangered condition. In addition, according to a study, by the end of the first wave, an additional 9,000 people had left healthcare. Posing an even greater threat to the government is the new health law, which includes a medical wage increase. The new regulation also increased sectoral tensions: not only with doctors but also with other healthcare providers, out of whom, according to a survey by their union, more than 9,000 plan to resign.
Therefore, a few days ago, the Borsod County president of the Hungarian Medical Chamber (MOK) told Hungarian news portal 444.hu that the 32,000 hospital patients mentioned by Orbán by December were “equal to armageddon” in the Hungarian healthcare system. Last week, another medical organization voiced similar concerns, talking about conditions likened to “Bergamo” in the spring. Zoltán Szabad, the president of the Hungarian Doctors’ Union, told Népszava that a lot of hospitals’ intensive care capacities are already full, and the situation in Hungary was as critical as it was in northern Italy in the spring.
On the other hand, Péter Takács, director general of St. János Hospital, said that there are no Bergamo conditions in Hungarian hospitals treating coronavirus patients. Takács said the number of beds reserved for coronavirus patients has been increased (a recent ministerial order talks about 40 percent). He said, “without the intervention, there would indeed have been more patients than free hospital beds, but the government has tightened the rules and now the capacity is expanded.”
featured photo: Zoltán Balogh/MTI