In-depth | COVID-19

Kosovo sees record number of new COVID-19 cases

By - 30.10.2020

Health service facing pressure amidst second virus wave.

Kosovo has seen a record number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day, as the health service becomes increasingly stretched.

The National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) announced on Friday (October 30) that there had been 418 new infections confirmed in the past 24 hours. The previous highest number came on the previous day (Thursday, October 29), when there were 284 confirmed new cases.

Prishtina has the most cases with 188 new infections confirmed on Friday, while new cases were confirmed in the majority of municipalities. 

Four new deaths were also announced on Friday, bringing the total number of people confirmed to have died from COVID-19 to 678.

The number of official RT-PCR tests conducted has also increased significantly in recent days, with a record 1,600 tests conducted in the past 24 hours. The number of daily official tests recorded by NIPH rarely passed 700 until mid-October, but has steadily increased to around 1,000 daily tests in the past two weeks. 

One third of Kosovo’s current healthcare capacities have already been filled up with patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.

The record number of new infections is part of a surge of cases in Kosovo, which like much of the rest of Europe is now experiencing a new wave of COVID-19. 

After an initial spike in cases in August, infection rates had been relatively low during much of September and the early part of October. During this period, the number of hospitalized patients reduced, easing pressure on the struggling health care system.

But with the new increase in infections, one third of Kosovo’s current healthcare capacities have already been filled up with patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. 

At the beginning of October there were 150 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in all healthcare facilities across Kosovo. Today, this number has more than doubled to 316, of whom 204 are confirmed to be infected with the virus; the remainder are suspected cases.

Acting director of the University Hospital and Clinical Service of Kosovo (ShSKUK), Valbon Krasniqi, says that capacities have been increased since Kosovo recorded its first cases of the virus back in mid-March, and there are now up to 900 beds available for COVID patients. Krasniqi also says that they have worked on extending the oxygen supply to the clinics that will be used to treat these patients.

Where are the COVID-19 patients being treated?

The majority of Kosovo’s COVID-19 patients are being treated at the Infectious Diseases Clinic in Prishtina, part of the University Clinical Center of Kosovo (QKUK).

Lulzim Emini, head of the commission for managing QKUK’s COVID-19 facilities says that those with more severe symptoms or serious complications are being treated in the “COVID” Intensive Care facility, which was previously the hospital’s Central Intensive Care Unit. Patients who are suspected but not yet confirmed to have COVID-19 are being treated in the Pulmonology Clinic. 

COVID-19 patients are also being treated in regional hospitals in Prizren, Peja, Gjakova and Gjilan. 

Meanwhile, Minister of Health Armend Zemaj has said that construction of a new building that is set to be part of the Emergency Clinic at QKUK will be accelerated and completed in the upcoming months so that it can also be used as a COVID-19 facility. According to Zemaj, the building will add around 500 beds to the existing capacity.

This has had a significant impact on non-COVID patients, who are often having to wait months for important treatments.

It is currently unclear how the latest surge in COVID cases and hospitalizations will impact the provision of other healthcare services. 

Much non-emergency health provision only re-started at the end of September, having been suspended for months. After the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in March, ShSKUK announced a suspension of all non-emergency procedures and interventions in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Doctors and directors of clinics at QKUK say that this has had a significant impact on non-COVID patients, who are often having to wait months for important treatments. 

“The number of procedures [carried out] is much smaller compared to the number of procedures conducted in the last year,” says Tefik Bekteshi, director of the Cardiac Surgery and Invasive Cardiology Clinic at QKUK. “This means an increase in waiting lists, delay in procedures, consequences for the health of patients with coronary diseases, but also letting these patients go to private institutions.”

Like in other countries whose health services have been hit hard by the pandemic, doctors in Kosovo say that the reluctance of citizens to visit a doctor in the current climate has also led to delays in receiving key diagnoses, which can have serious consequences for the chances of successful treatment. 

New lockdown a ‘last resort’

As European countries such as France and Germany have started announcing new lockdown measures in recent days in an attempt to bring the second wave under control, new restrictive measures have yet to be introduced in Kosovo, despite the rapidly increasing numbers. 

On Thursday (October 29), Zemaj told Klan Kosova’s Rubikon show that a new lockdown would only be a “last resort.” He also said that new restrictions on gatherings and the movement of people over 60 and those with chronic diseases would be introduced “these days.”

Earlier in the week, the Minister of Health had said that the increase in infections is because of individuals not respecting restrictive measures and that the government would take “all the measures, including further restrictions, if needed.” 

Currently, the government is attempting to combat the spread of COVID-19 through measures such as the mandatory use of masks in public places. There is also a curfew on bars, cafes, and restaurants, which are allowed to stay open until 11:30 p.m. (and play music until 9 p.m.) — they must keep a minimum of 2 meters between tables and provide hand sanitizer on each table.

According to a government decision from September 25, the measurement of temperature is mandatory “when entering public and private buildings.” The same decision opened theaters and cinemas, which had been closed since the initial measures were introduced in March, although they are only allowed to operate at 40% capacity.

Outside, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited “in public squares, parks, etc.” 

Schools in the country opened in several rounds during September, but tens have since closed because the virus spread among students and teachers. The Ministry of Education has said that the closed schools have resumed online teaching. 

In August, a new Law on Preventing and Combating COVID-19 Pandemic was approved by the Kosovo Assembly, setting out fines for those who do not comply with the restrictions. The fine for those caught not wearing a mask in public is 35 euros.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.