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Poland's health system faces collapse

October 31, 2020

Poland is suffering from a shortage of doctors, nursing staff and ICU beds. Field hospitals are being built to accommodate patients during the pandemic. The country's health care system is reaching its limits.

Poland Warsaw | Coronavirus
Image: Czarek Sokolowski/dpa/picture-alliance

On Thursday, the number of new coronavirus cases in Poland broke the threshold of 20,000. The epidemiologist and government adviser Andrzej Horban immediately rang the alarm bell: At this pace, the country's health care system would soon reach its limit, he warned.

"If the rise of new infections remains at the current level, there will be no way out anymore and we will have to introduce a lockdown," Horban said. "Our system is capable of accommodating up to 30,000 COVID-19 patients, who will then receive the best possible medical treatment," he added. More than that would "ruin" Poland's health care system, he said.

The government has promised to provide a total of 35,000 ICU beds for patients infected with the coronavirus soon. At the moment 22,500 are available, of which nearly 15,000 are in use — while another 700 COVID patients are hospitalized on a daily basis. Of the total of 11,000 ventilators available in Poland, 1,700 have been reserved for COVID patients. At this point, 1,200 of those are already in use.

Just one month ago, Poland's hospitals only had to accomodate 2,400 COVID patients, and only 140 of those were on a ventilator. But if the infection rate remains at the current level, hospitals will be operating at full capacity in about two weeks.

One of Poland's biggest problems now is staff shortage, although this was a pressing issue even before the pandemic. Of the 4,000 doctors who are trained in Poland every year, several hundred go to work abroad because they don't want to work within the chronically underfunded Polish health care system.

Mateusz Morawiecki
"We are preparing you for a very serious scenario," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Image: Marcin Obara/PAP/picture alliance

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Dramatic situation in hospitals

Paramedics and patients are now feeling the painful effects of the doctors' shortage. Polish media outlets are currently listing numerous examples of people who don't receive help despite life-threatening health conditions — because COVID patients have priority.

Recorded conversations leaked by paramedics to broadcaster TVN24 revealed, for example, that one emergency patient was sent back and forth between four hospitals for hours. In desperation, the rescue team eventually asked the emergency room of one of Warsaw's biggest hospitals whether they were to leave the patient "on the doorstep" and even called the police for help. But even they were unable to force the doctors to accept the patient — the intensive care unit was fully occupied with COVID patients.

An account of the dramatic situation at the hospital was posted on Facebook by Tomasz Siegel, the head of the anesthesiology unit, who had been appointed as the hospital's medical director at short notice. But he vacated the post after just a week because he found it impossible to set up 38 ICU beds within a couple of days, as the health minister had ordered.

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"Where do I move the patients who are receiving treatment there now? The minister doesn't tell me, because spaces are not available anywhere," Siegel wrote. Preparing ICUs required time, staff, and funding. Official statistics were "fiction." Administrative orders were only created by those in power "in order to organize a press conference and wash the blood of those people off their hands who are dying in front of our eyes and who will continue to die because they don't get help."

"We are preparing you for a very serious scenario," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at a press conference on Thursday at Warsaw's National Stadium, where a field hospital is currently being set up. Up to 10,000 COVID-19 patients are to receive, treatment some of them in ICUs, in such makeshift hospitals, which are now being constructed all over Poland.

But it's unclear who is to staff them. For this reason, the Polish parliament has just approved new financial incentives for doctors and nursing staff. Those willing to work at the COVID frontline would receive considerable benefits. Doctors, for example, will receive twice as much as their respective basic salaries. In addition, they will be partially exempted from liability when they treat COVID patients.

Polen Präsident Andrzej Duda
Poland's President Andrzej Duda tested positive for the virusImage: Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/picture-alliance

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Germany offers help

Although many doctors would embrace international cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, Poland wants to go it alone. Last week, the Head of the Prime Minister's Office Michal Dworczyk was asked in a radio interview whether Morawiecki had considered calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask for assistance.

"We draw upon our own resources," Dworczyk answered. "We are convinced that we will be able to uphold adequate standards of care." Critics called this misguided national pride.

Nevertheless, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered Poland medical aid from Germany after news broke that President Andrzej Duda had contracted the coronavirus. "Where our respective medical capacities reach their national limits, we should help each other to the best of our abilities. Please let me know if there is anything we can do for Poland in the current situation," Steinmeier said in a handwritten letter to his Polish counterpart.

Meanwhile, the government has classified the whole country as a coronavirus "red zone." Among other things, this means that restaurants are only allowed to sell takeaway meals, that people must wear protective face masks in all public places and that there is an upper limit of five people wherever they meet.

But if the number of new infections continues to rise at this pace, further restrictions will have to follow, the prime minister warned.