“We help with hygiene, sometimes we draw blood, we do…” mid-sentence, Barbara Sásová looks over for help finding the right English word to describe her duties. “Sanitary work,” she says, nervously giggling. At just 18 years old, she’s a nurses’ assistant at a hospital in Kyjov, a small town in eastern Czech Republic less than half an hour from the Slovakian border.
The teenager attends a healthcare-focused high school nearby, but with schools shut down across the country to stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s been catapulted into the adult world, inside a hospital where she is badly needed. Some of her colleagues are only 16, unable to vote, or even drive.
“I think it is our duty because we are the future of health workers,” Sásová said.
“The situation is very serious. The Czech health system never faced such a challenge before. Every day there is an increase of 1,000 sick health care workers. With 10 million people in the Czech Republic, this is a serious number,” said Dr. Milan Kubek, president of the Czech Medical Chamber.
As of October 28, according to Kubek, 15,433 health care workers have been sidelined with the virus; almost 3,000 of them are doctors. Most are catching the virus not at work, but on the streets, or from friends or relatives, Kubek believes. The numbers are so high that Czech hospitals are limping along with vital help from volunteers – who get bonus points for having medical experience – but beggars can’t be choosers.
“The health care system in the Czech Republic already collapsed because hospitals, with a few exceptions, are not able to provide long-term care for non-Covid patients,” said Jiri Vyhnal, the head ER doctor in Kyjov.
About 35 miles east, in the city of Zlín, 21-year-old Marie Hanackova, in her final year of nursing college, now logs 12-hour shifts caring for less-severe coronavirus patients.
“There is an insane panic here. People are simply afraid. During my practical training last year, they were calmer,” she told CNN, dressed in full hazmat gear.
The panic is understandable. The Czech Republic has an infection rate that is higher than almost any other major country on earth – six times higher than the United States. Officially, one in every 63 people in the country are currently infected with the virus.
Seven hospital departments in Zlín have been shut down to make way for the onslaught of Covid-19 patients. CNN was allowed inside the intensive care unit (ICU) where all of the beds equipped to handle coronavirus patients on ventilators are occupied. Some patients are cared for in what used to be a storage room across the hall. But space isn’t the primary issue, staffing is.
“We don’t have enough nurses, doctors and technicians,” explained Dr. Tomáš Gabrhelík, the head ICU doctor in Zlín. About 15% of his colleagues are out sick with the virus. He says he will soon have to ask them to come back to work even if they’re still ill. Students and volunteers are helpful, he says, but doctors are irreplaceable. The government, he says, can only do so much to help, “because every region has the same problem.”
The hospital says if things don’t change, it will be forced to turn away new patients by November 2.
On top of the health crisis, the Czech Republic also has a political one. Last week, Health Minister Roman Prymula was accused of breaking his own coronavirus restrictions. The centrist, populist Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis immediately called for his resignation. After first resisting, Prymula agreed to step down after a replacement is chosen – the third Czech health minister in just the last six weeks, at the height of one of the worst outbreaks the planet has ever seen.
The sudden turn-for-the-worst comes after the Czech government was praised for its handling of the first wave in the spring. A strict stay-at-home order, along with an unpopular but effective legal mandate to wear a mask anywhere outside the home helped quickly tamp down the virus. By early summer, the daily death toll was down to zero. After that, it seems complacency set in.
Now, the Czech military just finished setting up a 500-bed field hospital – staffed entirely with military doctors and nurses, who will have to be pulled out of civilian hospitals to help.
“We don’t have enough medical staff, therefore we welcome very much the help from abroad,” said Dr. Kubek. In the spring, northern Italy found itself in a similar position – hospitals swelling with patients, with too few beds and even fewer doctors and nurses. The Italian government appealed to its neighbors for assistance. Medics from around the world answered the call. But the Czech government declined to send its military doctors abroad.
“The military doctors were needed here as well,” Deputy Defense Minister Jan Havránek explained to CNN, though he also conceded that the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring was “rather mild.” The Czechs did send truckloads of PPE to Italy and Spain, but no personnel. Now, the Czech government is in the awkward position of asking its neighbors to send the same type of health workers it declined to send them a few months ago.
Asked if the Czechs will think harder about sending personnel next time their neighbors need help, Havránek said the lesson has been learned. “Definitely we will… we realize that it’s a two-way street, and we cannot just ask without giving back.”
The US National Guard has committed to sending a few dozen medics to the Czech Republic, and the European Union will send 300.
They’re nice gestures, but only a drop in the bucket. It will take 140 more doctors and nurses to make just the Zlín Hospital alone fully functional again.
It’s unlikely the Czechs will get much more help than that. With coronavirus cases surging across Europe, countries are starting to prepare for their own worst-case-scenarios. The Czech Republic may soon have to fight this battle on its own.
Li-Lian Ahlskog Hou and Luis Graham-Yooll contributed to this story.