By Jan Lopatka
SLANY/PRIBRAM, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Czech hospitals are converting general wards into COVID-19 units and cancelling non-urgent procedures to cope with a surge in patients, as the number of hospitalised reaches six times the peak seen during the first wave of the virus.
The country of 10.7 million has Europe's highest number of new coronavirus infections relative to population size.
The health system is well equipped with beds, oxygen and ventilators, but is beginning to feel the pressure of fast-rising patient numbers combined with staff absences, as more than 4,000 hospital workers are now infected.
The Czech government was fast in March to close borders, schools and most retail business, quashing the epidemic with just thousands of infections. But it also went further than most in relaxing the unpopular restrictions over the summer and was reluctant to bring them back even as cases started climbing.
At the 314-bed hospital in Slany, a town 30 km northwest of Prague, construction workers were speeding through the corridors this week to convert a general ward for COVID-19 patients, increasing the number of special beds to 29 from the current 12.
The hospital's ICU ward with 5 beds has also been fully designated for COVID.
"We are getting ready for a surge in patient numbers," Slany Hospital Director Stepan Votocek told Reuters.
"I am worried about personnel, mainly nurses. It is not just about numbers but about physical and psychological stress. If this takes weeks and months, I have a great worry if they will simply make it."
The government, criticised by medical professionals including Votocek for acting slowly, has said thousands of medical students would be called up to help.
The country had over 8,000 daily infections twice in the past week, bringing active cases to 68,740 and probably much higher as high positivity rates from the testing suggest many are missed.
(Czech Republic: COVID-19 hospitalisations jump - https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CZECH/gjnpwlgynvw/chart.png)
About 4% end up in hospital with a 7-10 day delay after diagnosis. There were 2,503 hospitalised on Tuesday, double he figure from a week ago and six times the peak seen earlier this year. Deaths reached 1,106 with a daily record of 55 on Monday.
Projections by government experts have put the number of hospitalised at 4,500-10,750 by the end of October.
Of the country's 4,011 intensive care beds 958 were free as of Monday, a national register showed, with 207 designated for COVID-19 patients. There were also 982 free beds with oxygen support for COVID cases.
The Pribram Regional Hospital, 60km south of Prague, had 27 COVID patients on Wednesday with nine in intensive care.
It was preparing another ward, and has reduced non-urgent procedures. It also had 25 staff in quarantine or isolation.
"We can physically add beds, I expect we would get equipment as well, but there is nowhere to find personnel," said Martin Zatloukal, head of intensive care within Pribram's general ward.
"There will have to be reduction in care, just due to the numbers of infected... We are all hoping this will not take the path of a catastrophic scenario."
(Czech Republic: COVID-19 deaths rising - https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CZECH/qmypmjmoxvr/chart.png)
(COVID-19 deaths in Europe - https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CZECH/rlgvdxmkkvo/chart.png)
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)