BUCHAREST – Doctor Petruta Filip is working 100-hour weeks at a Bucharest hospital which, like hospitals throughout Romania, is struggling under an onslaught of COVID-19 patients in a country with worryingly low vaccination rates.
The European Union country of around 19 million has only 35% of its adults fully inoculated against COVID-19 compared to an EU average of 74%, and is the second-least vaccinated nation in the 27-nation bloc in front of Bulgaria. That's crippling Romania's creaking health care system, which is also facing record-high death and infection numbers.
In an attempt Friday to curb the deadly surge and relieve pressure on hospitals, authorities approved tighter restrictions set to take effect on Monday. Vaccination certificates will be required for many day-to-day activities, such as going to the gym, the cinema, or a shopping mall.
For everyone, there will be a 10 p.m. curfew, shops will be shuttered at 9 p.m., bars and clubs will close for 30 days, and schools will close for an additional week over half-term starting Monday. Masks will be mandatory for everyone in public.
“I would bring people (who don’t believe in the virus or vaccines) here for a day, and maybe they’ll change their opinion,” Filip told The Associated Press Friday. She works at the capital's Bucharest University Emergency Hospital in a COVID-19 ward packed with patients receiving oxygen treatment.
Romania on Tuesday registered record highs of nearly 19,000 infections and 574 deaths. More than 1,800 coronavirus patients are currently receiving intensive care treatment. Data from Romania's health authorities indicate that more than 90% of those dying of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
“All the stories on TV are about morgues filled with dead people and relatives crying outside," said Filip, on a day that Romania registered 16,110 new COVID-19 infections and 448 deaths.
It was a week in which dark scenes emerged of ambulances queued for hours outside hospitals waiting for beds to be made available. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called it a “national drama of terrible proportions” and said there has been a “lack of concrete action” by authorities on preparing for the latest surge.
“A real catastrophe has been triggered in Romania and unfortunately until people convince themselves to get vaccinated, measures are needed,” he said Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Romanian doctors issued an open letter to Romanians titled “a cry of despair” to highlight the plight they face and urged people to get vaccinated.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Romania, which now has one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the EU, prompted the World Health Organization to send a senior expert, Dr. Heather Papowitz, to assist in strengthening its pandemic response.
Papowitz attended on Friday the opening of a three-day round-the-clock vaccination ‘marathon’ in Bucharest, which authorities hope will stimulate jab uptake. In the first eight hours more than 13,000 people received a vaccine, authorities said.
“It's really exciting that we see so many people here," Papowitz told a press conference. “We've heard that a lot of people are getting vaccinated, that more are getting vaccinated.”
For 51-year-old Emilia, who got inoculated at the vaccination marathon in Bucharest Friday, the population was not well-informed about vaccines — for which she blames the authorities.
“There was a great deal of ignorance, people were not well informed,” she said.
Vaccination uptake in Romania has risen since the end of September, from around just 10,000 doses a day to a record high Friday of 128,000. But the WHO estimates that, at the current rate, it could take Romania nearly three years to pass the key 70% threshold of vaccination coverage.
“Romania has failed at vaccinating its population,” Dr. Marius-Ionut Ungureanu, director of the Center for Health Workforce Research and Policy at Babes-Bolyai University, told the AP.
Ungureanu says that, while the new restrictions starting Monday are “vital” the response by the authorities during this latest deadly wave is “too little, too late.”
“The vaccination campaign, almost flawlessly organized and coordinated from a logistical perspective, has failed from a communication standpoint,” he said.
Stephen McGrath in Bucharest contributed to this story.
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic