BANIA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) – Watching with fear as the coronavirus rages in neighboring countries, doctors in Bosnia are gearing up for a new wave in the Balkan country, which has low vaccination rates and ranks among the worst-hit countries. Europe used to be in a pandemic.
In the northwestern city of Banja Luka, employees of the COVID-19 department of the main city hospital warn that the number of hospitalizations has increased in recent days and an explosion may soon occur.
Other low-vaccination countries in Central and Eastern Europe are already grappling with a weeks-long spike in infections, including Bosnia’s neighboring Serbia and Croatia. Some countries are seeing the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic, forcing authorities to be reluctant to consider tightening antivirus regulations.
“In recent days, we have noticed that the epidemic situation is worsening, we can say with confidence about this,” said Daniel Djokic, head of the COVID-19 department at the University Clinical Center Banja Luka.
“Looking at the situation in neighboring countries, we can say that our number will also increase,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The hospital has a capacity of 300 beds for COVID patients, 223 hospitals are already full, including 32 intensive care units. During previous bursts of activity, the hospital has been able to gradually expand its capacity to around 700 beds, if necessary.
An increase in the number of new infections is also reported in other parts of Bosnia, with about 1,000 new infections confirmed daily on Thursday.
In response, authorities in the Sarajevo capital have expanded vaccination options, instructed schools to organize vaccination courses, and announced that they are monitoring the situation for possible new restrictions if infections spiral out of control.
In most of Central and Eastern Europe, governments are reluctant to return to quarantines, hoping instead to boost vaccinations with COVID-19 passes and calls for vaccinations. The vaccination rate in Bosnia is about 20% of the 3.2 million population, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Doctors in Banja Luka said most of their current patients are not vaccinated at all or have received only one dose. Vaccinated people who end up in the hospital are usually older and still have a better clinical situation, which is usually not fatal, according to Dr. Jokic.
“I would like to take this opportunity to re-emphasize that vaccination with any vaccine is in fact the only and safest way to fight COVID-19 infection and this pandemic,” he said.
Bosnia is still struggling after it was destroyed in the 1992-95 war, which killed more than 100,000 people, but during a pandemic. An already poor healthcare system has been further affected by reports of corruption in the procurement of equipment for COVID-19 wards, prompting an investigation by the state prosecutor’s office.
Bosnia has so far recorded over 250,000 confirmed infections and over 11,000 deaths, one of the highest per capita death rates in Europe.
“If I had not been vaccinated, it would probably have been difficult for me to survive,” said Marinko Ukur, a patient in a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask. “The consequences of the disease for me would have been much worse.”
Ukur said he paid attention to measures and defenses against the virus and still got infected.
“I have no idea how I got it,” he said. “All I know is that this delta variant is very contagious and people get infected with it very quickly.”
In addition to low vaccination rates, experts blamed the latest rise in infections in the region on the highly infectious delta variant amid widespread disrespect for generally accepted antiviral guidelines for people to wear face masks indoors, distance themselves and avoid crowds.
Another COVID-19 patient in Banja Luka, 43-year-old Raiko Milunovic, said he was not vaccinated but would do so immediately after being discharged from the hospital. Many in Bosnia are skeptical of vaccines due to general mistrust of the authorities and floating conspiracy theories against vaccinations.
“Only when you feel this disease on your skin, on yourself, then you understand how dangerous it is,” he said. “Now I can see it all clearly. As soon as I get out of here, I will be vaccinated. I think the vaccine is good. “
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic