Stod, Czech Republic
Nurse Drahoslava Letakova runs a hand through her hair, leans against the wall and her eyes moisten as she thinks before answering a question about her working life.
“That I’m here all the time? That I have no time off? That I haven’t had a vacation for more than six months? That’s how it is, working life,” she said quietly.
Letakova is head nurse at the internal medicine ward of a hospital in the town of Stod in Czech Republic, which currently has the world’s highest per capita Covid-19 infection rate.
The hospital in the western part of this small European Union member state of 10.7 million people takes care of people from places as far as 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.
“I start at 6:00 am every day and stay as long as needed. I get home when it’s already dark,” said Letakova, who is now in charge of some 90 staff instead of the usual 50.
“Some of the young nurses wear activity trackers, and they do over 10 kilometres a day running around the ward,” she told to profuse coughing from a nearby room.
The hospital has been plagued by a steady inflow of patients.
The Czech Republic has seen 1.2 million cases with 20,000 deaths since the pandemic began, and its recent daily growth pace hovers at around 15,000 cases.
The Czech health ministry said Tuesday the country was close to running out of intensive care capacity.
“In no way can we maintain the current standards of health care and there is a slowdown and postponements in non-Covid care. The system as a whole is close to its limit,” said Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Cerny.
Stod is a living example, with director Miroslav Zabransky blaming the British strain of the virus rapidly spreading across the country.
“Very often, the situation with free beds changes completely within an hour. We now have five free beds, but we may soon have two extra patients with no place,” Zabransky told.
The hospital has turned its internal medicine ward into a Covid unit, while non-Covid patients have moved to gynaecology and surgery wards.
“The people on the Covid wards are exhausted, they often can’t go on vacation and if they can, they have nowhere to go. The mental burden is the worst,” Zabransky said.
He added that vaccines looked like “a light at the end of a tunnel”, but a slow roll-out and problems with supplies made the light look feeble.
The Czech Republic is currently in a partial lockdown and there are legal wrangles between the government, led by populists, and the opposition over tightening anti-virus measures.
The government failed to announce a stricter lockdown Thursday despite a growing outcry for more of the measures that helped the country deal with the first wave of the pandemic last spring.
The worst is still to come
Letakova waves at a young nurse in civilian clothes as she dashes out of the ward just after lunch.
“She has a small kid who’s in quarantine,” sighed the stout head nurse.
“My girls need a holiday. The spring vacation is coming and I need to give them time off,” she said, even though she admits that would increase her own workload.
Zabransky said he could use help from Germany, whose offers of hospital capacity to its struggling eastern neighbour have so far been met with a lukewarm response from the Czech government.
He said it was too early to give data on Covid-19 patients treated at Stod since the outbreak.
“I haven’t done the maths yet. I think the worst is still to come.”