Romanian Virus Death Toll Rises to Worst in EU’s Eastern Wing

Andra Timu and Irina Vilcu

(Bloomberg) --

Romania is suffering a surge in fatalities caused by the coronavirus after tens of thousands of its citizens returned from Italy and Spain, making it the worst-hit nation in central and eastern Europe.

The death toll surged to 69 in the past 24 hours, with more than 2,100 people infected with COVID-19. That’s almost the combined number of deaths in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The latter two countries -- along with Romania -- were among the European Union’s first after Italy to impose strict lockdowns on most aspects of public life earlier this month.

A small historical town in the north of the country, Suceava, is the epicenter, with almost half of the deaths originating from a hospital where most doctors and nurses contracted the illness. The town, renowned for its UNESCO religious heritage status, was placed in full lockdown on Tuesday to try to limit the contagion. Authorities estimate that more than 1,000 more potentially positive cases are still unidentified.

Ukraine also recorded the first cases in its western region bordering Romania. Authorities suspect a woman who returned from working in Italy passed the virus to 15 people in her village. Ukraine has currently registered 549 coronavirus cases and 13 deaths.

Years of underfunding left Romania’s health-care system -- ranked one of Europe’s worst -- among the most exposed to the virus. In the face of the recent outbreak, medical staff at some small hospitals resigned, saying they don’t want to take the risk because they don’t have the proper equipment to treat infected patients.

“I can’t issue a decree to force people to stay and fight on the front lines,” Health Minister Nelu Tataru said late Monday. “We’re making efforts to send equipment everywhere. This will give people the confidence they need to stay and fight.”

Romania is trying to boost local production of face masks and protective suits, with companies switching production lines with help from the government. The cabinet of Prime Minister Ludovic Orban plans to boost the budget of the Health Ministry and will try to use all funds available at the EU level to confront the crisis.

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