'Catastrophically short of doctors': Virus wallops Ukraine

STEBNYK, Ukraine (AP) - Coronavirus infections in Ukraine increased in late summer, and the waves are now hitting cities like Stebnyk in the west of the country, where Dr. Natalia Stetsik observed the increasing number of patients with alarm and fear.
"It is incredibly difficult. We have catastrophically few doctors," says Stetsik, the chief doctor of the only hospital in the city with 20,000 inhabitants. "It is very difficult for a doctor to see all patients."
The hospital is expected to accept 100 patients, but has already reached its limits and is treating 106 patients with COVID-19.
At the start of the pandemic, Ukraine's troubled healthcare system was battling the outbreak, and authorities put in place a strict lockdown in March to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
The number of cases slowed in the summer but rose rapidly, prompting the government to close Ukraine's borders for a month in late August. Even so, the number of positive tests reported in the country continued to rise rapidly, hitting a new daily high of 5,397 on Thursday.
Overall, COVID-19 infections in Ukraine almost doubled in the past month to 244,000.
"The number of patients is increasing and an increasing proportion of them are in a serious condition," Stetsik told The Associated Press about the situation in Stebnyk, a quiet town in the Lviv region. "The virus is becoming more aggressive and more difficult to treat."
She said that many of those who are sick are in their thirties, adding that more and more of them are in need of expensive drugs.
"There is a similar situation across Ukraine," she said, adding that hospitals are running out of funds to provide medicines and patients in some areas are being forced to buy their own.
The World Health Organization warns that the number of infections in Ukraine could continue to rise, reaching 7,000 to 9,000 a day.
The government wants to avoid a new lockdown, but officials acknowledge that the rising number of infections could make it necessary. Attempts have been made to introduce a more flexible approach to minimize economic damage and to divide the country into different zones depending on the rate of infection.
At a meeting with officials in Kiev on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy punished them for not doing enough to slow the spread and taking too long to provide the necessary supplies.
"We spend weeks doing things that have to be done in days," he said.
Zelenskiy specifically urged them to move faster to ensure hospitals have enough supplemental oxygen, noting that only about 40% of beds for COVID-19 patients have access to it.
Ukraine's corrupt economy was drained from a six-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country, and the Zelenskiy government inherited health reforms from its predecessor that cut state subsidies and left hospital workers underpaid and ill-equipped.
Last month, Zelenskiy ordered the government to raise wages for medical workers.
Official statistics show that 132 medical workers have died from the coronavirus, although that number does not include those who tested negative but had symptoms typical of COVID-19.
One of them was Ivan Venzhynovych, a 51-year-old therapist from the western town of Pochaiv, who described the challenges of dealing with the outbreak in an interview with the AP in May.
Venzhynovych died last week of double pneumonia, which his colleagues believed was caused by the coronavirus, despite testing negative.
"He certainly had COVID-19," said Venzhynovych's widow Iryna, a doctor at the hospital where he worked. "There are many infections among medical professionals, some confirmed and some not."
The government is paying the equivalent of $ 56,000 to families of medical professionals who die from the coronavirus. But Venzhynovych's widow cannot receive the payment because he tested negative.
With infections rising, many lawmakers and top officials test positive, including former President Petro Poroshenko, who was hospitalized in a serious condition with virus-induced pneumonia.
Medics want the government to bring back a sweeping lockdown indicating the health system's scarce resources.
"It is possible that Ukraine will have to go back to a tight quarantine like in spring. The number of patients is really large," said Dr. Andriy Gloshovskiy, surgeon at the Stebnyk hospital.
He blamed public negligence for the new infections.
"People are pretty sloppy and I'm sorry they aren't impressed with numbers," he said.
Gloshovskiy said he had to switch to treating COVID-19 patients because of the staff shortage.
"I had to change my specialty because my colleagues just couldn't handle it without me," he said.
Health Minister Maxim Stepanov admitted that the shortage of doctors and nurses is a big problem.
"We can increase hospital capacity and improve oxygen supply, but we may simply be short of doctors," he said. "Every system has its limits."
A tight lockdown would be a major blow to the already weakened economy, Stepanov said, warning that authorities could be forced to do so.
"If the situation takes a threatening turn, the Department of Health would suggest reverting to strict quarantine measures," he said.
At Stebnyk Hospital, some patients said they didn't realize the coronavirus threat until they fell ill.
"I didn't believe in its existence until I was infected," said 43-year-old Natalia Bobyak. "When I got here, I saw people getting sick en masse."
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Karmanau reported from Kiev, Ukraine.
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Follow AP's pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
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