Overload: Poland struggles to cope as COVID deaths hit 2021 record

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FILE PHOTO: Medical staff member prepares medicines inside for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) at a coronavirus disease ward of the Interior and Administration Ministry (MSWiA) hospital in Warsaw, Poland,

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland sought to ease pressure on hospitals in one of its hardest hit regions on Wednesday as COVID-related deaths hit a 2021 record.

As case numbers soar with the spread of a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in Britain, Poland's health service has been driven to the brink, with some regions close to running out of ventilators.

Health Ministry data showed that on Monday there was one ventilator available in Silesia, an industrial southern region with a population of some 4.5 million people.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said that 150-170 COVID-19 patients from Silesia would be moved to other regions by the end of the week, with medical aircraft on standby 24 hours a day to help.

"The situation in Silesia is very difficult, this is the moment when the problems of one region cannot be solved only within this region," he told reporters.

An additional 3,000 to 4,000 beds will be added nationwide by the end of the week, he added.

Poland reported 653 deaths on Wednesday, the highest number in 2021, and 32,874 new cases. Niedzielski said Poland should reach the peak of the third wave of the pandemic this week or next.

Amid reports of medical students being called on to plug staffing shortages and even of a stroke patient being transported in the trunk of a passenger car, Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska sought to reassure Poles that the health service could cope.

"The situation is under control but very serious," he told public broadcaster TVP1 before Wednesday's data was published.

However, Malgorzata Jedrzejczyk, a spokeswoman for the Megrez hospital in Tychy, a town in Silesia, said staff were struggling to deal with the highest number of new patients since the start of the pandemic.

"They (the doctors) just work so hard," she told Reuters. "When there are few medical staff... and on the other hand there is a huge influx of patients, we inevitably end up with a massive overload."

In total, Poland, a country of 38 million, has reported 2,321,717 cases of the coronavirus and 53,045 deaths. Over 2 million Poles have now received both doses of vaccine.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Joanna Plucinska, Anna Koper, Alicja Ptak and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Catherine Evans, William Maclean and Gareth Jones)