BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Despite struggling with the worst COVID-19 death rate in the world and record new infections, Hungary announced plans Friday to scale back virus restrictions in coming weeks — even as other countries in hard-hit Central Europe are opting for caution.
In a radio interview on Friday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said non-essential stores, which have been closed for three weeks, would soon re-open. He also announced a new daily high for COVID-19 infections and a record 275 deaths in the country of fewer than 10 million.
“We are living through the most difficult weeks of the pandemic,” Orban said.
Hungary has the highest two-week per capita death rate in the world, and hospitals are under unprecedented strain. But in addition to allowing stores to open, the start of an overnight curfew in place since Nov. 11 will be pushed back by two hours, Orban announced Friday.
The new rules will go into effect after Easter, a government minister said later on Friday.
Meanwhile, Hungarian officials are looking toward reopening kindergartens and primary schools, on digital education since March 8. Educators will be prioritized for vaccination, and schools will reopen once 2.5 million people have received at least a first shot, Orban said, projecting a date of April 19.
Nearby countries are taking a different approach. Romania imposed new restrictions Friday to tackle the highest level of daily infections in three months, ordering a tightened curfew and shorter shop opening hours in places with high infection rates.
Poland, which registered a record number of new infections for the third straight day, vowed strict enforcement and heavy fines for those who break new restrictions that go into effect for at least two weeks starting Saturday. Capacity limits in churches were ordered, a tough requirement for Poles who traditionally throng to places of worship at Easter. Nursery schools and kindergartens as well as furniture shops and hairdressers must also close down.
Health officials across the region blame the surge on the British coronavirus variant that's more contagious and deadlier. Hungary's Chief Medical Officer, Cecilia Muller, said nearly all the country's new cases can be attributed to the U.K. variant.
Central and Eastern European hospitals are under major pressure. Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia currently have the highest number of hospitalized patients per capita in the European Union, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Some Hungarian doctors report overcrowded COVID wards and insufficient staff to treat a record number of patients. The government has denied that, but the country has also enlisted 1,200 medical student volunteers to assist doctors and nurses.
However, the extra manpower hasn’t eased the burden, and reports from some Hungarian hospitals recall shocking scenes of overcrowding in Italy’s Lombardy region at the beginning of the outbreak last spring.
“Imagine the videos we saw in connection with the situation in Italy," said Janos Belteczki, director of a hospital in Ozd, 95 miles (155 km) northeast of the capital, Budapest.
"We experience this every day and it puts a dire strain on our workers,” Belteczki said.
Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said the situation in the capital Warsaw was “critical” as there were no more beds for COVID-19 patients, and Romanian hospitals have recorded the highest numbers in intensive care units since the start of the pandemic.
“The pressure in hospitals is very high and it’s not only in intensive care,” Beatrice Mahler, the manager at the Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology in Bucharest told The Associated Press.
“The average age of the patients is below last year’s average," Mahler said.
While a recent downward trend in new infections in the Czech Republic and Slovakia has given leaders some reason for optimism, officials remained cautious and urged citizens to continue to abide by pandemic rules going into Easter.
Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw; Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania; and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.