Two Europes: Low vaccine rates in east overwhelm ICUs

Bucharest, Sep 28 (BUS): Bulgaria and Romania lag far behind the two least vaccinated countries in the European Union, with only 22% and 33% of the adult population vaccinated.

In the crowded intensive care unit for coronavirus patients in the Romanian capital Bucharest, 55-year-old Adrian Beca is sitting on his bed receiving extra oxygen to help him breathe. “I didn’t want to be vaccinated because I was afraid,” he said.

About 72% of adults in the 27-nation European Union have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the drop in uptake of the shots in some eastern EU countries now threatens to flood hospitals amid a wave of infections moving into the more contagious delta variant. AP reports.

“Until now, I didn’t believe in COVID-19,” Beca, who said his early symptoms left him sweating and feeling suffocated, told The Associated Press. “I thought it was like the flu. But now I am sick and in hospital. I want to get a vaccine.”

Rapidly increasing new infections have forced authorities to tighten virus restrictions in the two countries, while other European Union countries such as France, Spain, Denmark and Portugal have exceeded 80% vaccine coverage and eased restrictions.

Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s health commissioner, said a “worrying gap” in vaccines needed to be addressed urgently. Slovakia, Croatia and Latvia have vaccinated about 50% of all adults. But uptake of the vaccine in many Central and Eastern European countries has remained weak or declining.

In Norway, which has vaccinated about 70%, the authorities on Saturday scrapped restrictions that Prime Minister Erna Holberg described as “the strictest measures in peacetime”. Nordic neighbors Denmark lifted virus restrictions on September 10, while the United Kingdom has also abandoned most pandemic restrictions due to high vaccine rates.

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In contrast, at the Marius Nasta Pulmonary Institute in Bucharest, the ICU’s chief physician, Genoveva Kadar, says his beds are now at 100% capacity and about 98% of all virus patients are not immunized.

“Compared to previous waves, people are arriving with more severe forms” of the disease, she said, adding that many patients in this latest surge are younger than they used to be. “Very quickly they end up intubated – and the prognosis is very grim.”

Daily infections with the new coronavirus in Romania, with a population of 19 million, have grown exponentially over the past month, while the rate of vaccinations has fallen to alarming levels. Government data shows that 91.5% of COVID-19 deaths in Romania between September 18 and 23 were of people who had not been vaccinated.

On Sunday, 1,220 of the 1,239 ICU beds for virus patients were occupied in Romania. In many cases, it was only death that freed the intensive care beds. At the Marius Nasta Institute, a mobile intensive care unit on the hospital grounds opened on Monday, and it’s already full of patients.

“I don’t know how we’ll get through the next period, but we will definitely be here,” Beatrice Mahler, the hospital’s director, told The Associated Press. “We will do everything we can (but) we don’t have a winning recipe.”

Vlad Miksic, a Romanian public health specialist, told the Associated Press that “historic distrust of authorities” combined with what he described as a very weak government vaccination campaign has contributed to low vaccine uptake among his citizens.

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“During the vaccination campaign, politicians were unfortunately the main communicators,” he said, adding that the country’s frequent change of health ministers had had an enormous impact on efforts to vaccinate Romanians.

In neighboring Bulgaria, an alarming 23% of people said they did not want to be vaccinated, compared to just 9% across the block, according to a Eurobarometer survey.

None of the COVID-19 patients have been vaccinated, says Sabella Marinova, director of the intensive care unit at a hospital in the northern town of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria.

“We are very tired,” she said. “It seems that this horror has no end.”

Vice President of Romania’s National Vaccination Committee Andrei Bassio said that fake news was a major factor in preventing people from being attacked.

“There has been a culture that promotes fake news. We are working with a team of specialists to combat (that) … at the moment there are a large number of (infections) due to low vaccination rates,” he said, adding that the government is looking to increase the capacity of the intensive care unit.

Medical workers in Eastern Europe sometimes face additional risks. In September in the Bulgarian port city of Varna, a group opposed to vaccines attacked a medical team at a mobile vaccination station. Health Minister Stojsho Katsarov condemned the attack, saying “we will not allow our paramedics to be humiliated, harassed and publicly humiliated” for trying to save lives.

The implementation of vaccine passports, which allow people to show their vaccine status to go about their daily activities, may be one of the few options left for European governments at a loss over how to encourage their reluctant citizens to receive the vaccine.

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Experts say vaccine skeptics in parts of Europe could derail the entire continent’s efforts to end the pandemic.

Back at the Marius Nasta Institute, Nicoletta Bertia, a 63-year-old unvaccinated patient with COVID-19 who had pre-existing health issues, says she woke up a month ago feeling dizzy and sick and called an ambulance.

“I hope to be here on time,” she said, adding, “I understand very clearly that a vaccine cannot protect you.”


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