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Earlier this year, on July 15, „Wyborcza” asked the Ministry of Health to comment on its lax policies regarding gatherings and mass events despite the appeals from medical experts to impose greater restrictions. Regional infection statistics for Poland’s southern and south-eastern provinces already looked bleak. 150 people were diagnosed with Covid-19 after a single wedding that took place in the town Nowy Sącz on June 11. Some 2 000 citizens were sent into mandatory self-isolation.

Responding to our inquiry, the Ministry of Health said that it doesn’t see the need for tighter restrictions. – Family events such as weddings or first holy communions are not the biggest coronavirus hotspots. The listed examples are singular cases that received the most media attention- read the official response. Such a reaction is hardly a surprise: for several months now, the government has been feeding the public with a narrative of a successfully managed crisis, trying to convince people that the virus is no longer a threat and that the health care system did a great job.

Today, we can clearly see that it was nothing more than self-serving propaganda. The number of new infections is growing rapidly: hospitals are under increased pressure, there is a shortage of beds, ventilators, and remdesivir- the most effective antiviral drug so far. Flu vaccines, recommended especially this season, are lacking, too. Politicians are too busy reconstructing the government to deal with the pandemic, it seems. And the worst is yet to come. If the coronavirus pandemic overlaps with an exceptionally severe flu season, Poland’s public health is likely to turn into a tragedy.  

Was it possible to prepare ourselves for the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic? The government certainly had the power to make decisions that would at least alleviate some of the consequences. Instead, it decided to pursue a strategy of keeping our spirits up at all costs.

Weddings turned out to be more important than common sense.

4 280 new cases on Thursday: Another single-day record

On Wednesday, the daily number of coronavirus infections in Poland hit the 3000 mark for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. One day later, on Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported a new record:  4 280 cases. 76 people diagnosed with Covid-19 died. 68 of them had underlying health conditions.

The number of patients infected with coronavirus keeps reaching new levels every day. An increasing number of provinces report record spikes: Poland’s largest province, Mazovia, registered an unprecedented 598 new cases on Wednesday. The south-western region of Lower Silesia reported 184 infections. The Lesser Poland province in the southern part of the country had 360 new Covid-19 patients. Kraków alone registered 140.

So far, the Ministry of Health reported a total of 111 599 cases of infection. 2 867 people have died since the pandemic began. A record number of 4 138 patients with confirmed COVID-19 were hospitalized. 296 of them require mechanical ventilation. Since Wednesday, 1 144 people have recovered, adding to the current total of 76 490. Over 44 000 tests have been carried out in the past 24 hours.

Hospitals facing increased pressure: a shortage of beds, ventilators, and medical staff

While the most recent data suggests that there are still hundreds of unused ventilators in stock, there’s also an increased number of patients with heavy symptoms in need of mechanical breathing assistance. If the pandemic continues at its current pace, there are reasons to be concerned.

To make additional room for Covid-19 patients, some hospitals have already abandoned the separation between regular hospital units and infectious disease units. Putting infected people in the same room with other patients increases the risk of further outbreaks in hospitals. So far, almost 1 400 doctors, 3 200 nurses, and over 300 paramedics tested positive.

- At my hospital, there are two patients diagnosed with Covid-19 in the emergency room. Only a week ago, they closed the entire unit when someone tested positive. The way things stand right now, they would have to close it every day- writes a doctor in a private group for medics on social media.

Hospitals in Gdańsk, Kraków, Cieszyn, or Radom are already on the verge of their capacity. In Warsaw, the Infectious Disease Hospital, the Central Clinical Hospital of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Military Medical Institute are nearly full. Of the 76 ventilators designated for Covid-19 patients for the entire region of Mazovia, only 30 are still available.

But the situation looks similar all throughout the country. Last week, 152 ventilators were in use. Today, it’s already 283. According to data provided by the Ministry of Health, in total, there are about 800 ventilators and 9 thousand beds available for patients infected with Covid-19.

-On paper, it looks as if the situation is under control. In fact, the regional health care infrastructure is on the verge of collapse - says the immunologist Dr. Grzesiowski. There’re also inconsistencies in the statistics regarding hospitalized patients provided by governors and the national sanitary inspectorate.

What’s more, many regional hospitals have an insufficient number of specially trained personnel who can operate the ventilators. As an example, Dr. Grzesiowski talks about the situation on the Polish coast. – A hospital reports that it has 30 ventilators, but in fact, there are only four people qualified to use them. The official statistics include ventilators stockpiled in the storage and machines designated for patients with other diseases.

- Even if we had enough ventilators, we have a shortage of nurses with the necessary intensive care skills. This type of treatment requires proper training. Without it, it’s easy to make a fatal mistake - adds Iwona Borchulska, a member of the National Association of Nurses and Midwives.

The Minister of Health: “Our health care system is nearing its limits”

-At the moment, our health care system allows us to effectively respond to the epidemic situation. We must, however, keep in mind that if the outbreak continues at its current pace, the limits of that system will soon be tested- said the Minister of Health, Adam Niedzielski, in an interview with the public television channel TVP info.

Niedzielski emphasized that even though the daily infection rate in Poland looks relatively better compared to other European countries, other important aspects like the differences in medical infrastructure also need to be considered.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health announced a "zero-tolerance" policy in terms of coronavirus-related restrictions. Most importantly, wearing face masks in public places will be strictly enforced. Only a person with a medical certificate or another document confirming that he or she cannot wear a mask because of a medical condition will be allowed to do so. The police announced higher fines for not wearing face masks, too.

Poland becomes a „yellow zone”: tightened restrictions in the entire country

During a press conference on Thursday (October 8), Prime Minister Morawiecki announced new epidemic-related restrictions. -The second wave has reached us and we have to face it in a decisive way. We must put into use what we’ve learned during the last couple of months, but also learn from the experience of other countries (...). Starting October 10, we are expanding the restrictions followed in “yellow zones” onto the entire country. Covering one’s mouth and nose in public spaces will now become mandatory- he said.

Why the decision? –As of today, about 100 districts would practically become “yellow zones”. It’s a third of the country. Expanding the restrictions is more efficient, it sends a clear message to every Polish citizen- Morawiecki explained.

- Since yesterday, we had about a 30 % percent increase in new cases of infection. If this dynamic continues, the number of new cases will double every three days or so. We want the curve to flatten. To do that, we want to follow a similar strategy to the one we have applied a few months ago - the Prime Minister announced.

The regional color-coded system is based on data regarding local infection rates. Respective colors (“yellow” and “red”) mean specific restrictions such as mandatory face masks in public spaces, shorter opening hours for bars, restaurants, and other gastronomic businesses, and limits regarding the number of participants in events or gatherings.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about the coronavirus pandemic for you.

They are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities. They work on the ground, reporting from hospitals and airports.

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