Ambulances forced to queue as hospitals scramble for COVID-19 beds in Poland

(Reuters) – Marcin Serwach, an ambulance first responder from Warsaw, says he had to deliver oxygen at 3:00 a.m. to a colleague who spent 15 hours parked in front of a hospital with a patient in respiratory distress waiting to be admitted.

Then, last Sunday, he sat for five hours in his ambulance with an elderly patient showing coronavirus symptoms before a bed was found for her in an isolation ward.

“Very often we simply have nowhere to pass our patient on to,” Serwach, 35, said. “It’s not that the hospitals don’t want to take our patients, they have nowhere to put them or to isolate them.”

Poland reported more than 27,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the total to nearly half a million since the pandemic started earlier this year and putting unprecedented strain on its healthcare system.

So far 6,842 people infected with COVID-19 have died.

Serwach said before the pandemic, ambulances would be called to incidents that were no more than 15 minutes away, but are now being sent to places that take 30-40 minutes to reach.

“And the calls are passed on to us three hours after they are received,” he said.

Along with bed shortages, he says a lack of disinfection facilities to prepare ambulances to take new patients is causing delays.

The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Karol Bielski, the head of provincial ambulance service station Meditrans in Warsaw, confirmed that 4-5 ambulances queue in front of hospitals for up to several hours.

“It happens that a patient has to be driven from one hospital emergency ward to another, the situation is difficult,” he said, adding that no one had yet died in the ambulance because of the delays.

Critics have accused the conservative government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of failing to prepare the healthcare system for a second wave of the pandemic.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, an opposition liberal, said municipal hospitals in the capital had shortages of respirators in COVID-19 wards, although there were some available in emergency rooms and for surgeries.

“The situation is critical,” he was quoted as saying by the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily earlier this week.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski laid the blame for any problems on hospital managers and a lack of coordination between hospitals, saying ambulance dispatchers did not have access to full information on bed availability.

“We are also seeing the rather incomprehensible issue of beds being concealed even though they are in fact available, but the head of the hospital or ward does not necessarily want to admit the patient in question,” Niedzielski told reporters earlier this week.

Krzysztof Tomasiewicz, who runs the infectious disease department at a university hospital in the eastern city of Lublin, said: “I am the chief of a ward with 38 beds and we have 39-40 patients every day.

“It’s a race between beds and new patients … We didn’t do our homework.”