By Robert Muller and Jiri Skacel
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Medical students, retired nurses, volunteers and Prague's mayor have heeded a call to help Czech hospitals battle one of Europe's highest coronavirus infection rates that is straining the healthcare system.
With beds around 70% occupied, hospitals in the nation of 10.7 million have turned to volunteers to free up full-time health workers to care for more seriously ill patients.
"Medical students are taking the work because a lot of nurses are sick or in quarantine so we basically do the nursing stuff for patients in hospital or work in the COVID centres," said David Antos, 23, while on a break at a testing centre at a Prague hospital staffed by fellow students.
The government in October imposed tough restrictions, including school closures, a curfew and shutting bars and restaurants, to limit social contact after officials warned hospital capacity could run out in November.
As of Friday, almost 3,000 doctors and 7,400 nurses were out of action due to COVID-19, up from around 600 and 1,000 respectively at the beginning of October.
Petr Arenberger, director of Prague's Vinohrady Hospital, said his facility had drafted 150 medical students and would need a further 150 volunteers in the next two weeks.
"Our door is definitely open," Arenberger said.
The Czech Republic has reported on average nearly 12,000 cases a day over the last week and has Europe's highest per capita number of COVID-19-related deaths, with 18.8 per 100,000 over the last two weeks. Belgium is second with 11.3.
The number of COVID-19 hospitalisations increased seven-fold in October to 7,370 with those in a serious condition jumping six-fold to 1,156.
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, a doctor by training, is helping to examine patients.
"I firmly hope that this can motivate others who could help at hospitals," said Hrib, who last used his medical training during his internship 15 years ago.
The Czech Red Cross has begun courses for hospital volunteers with little or no healthcare experience.
At one class, participants took turns lying on a bed while others practiced changing sheets. Other training included how to wash and feed patients, said Red Cross Emergency Response Unit Chief Richard Smejkal.
"Even an amateur can learn relatively quickly and can help the system by doing such work instead of the professionals," he said, adding his organization had trained 350 people so far and received 2,300 applications.
(Writing and additional reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Janet Lawrence)