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Coronavirus: Meet the Czech volunteers helping out in hospitals amid COVID-19 surge

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Volunteers take part in a one-day course, as part of a programme by the Czech Red Cross to create thousands of voluntary healthcare assistants, in a hospital in Prague.
Volunteers take part in a one-day course, as part of a programme by the Czech Red Cross to create thousands of voluntary healthcare assistants, in a hospital in Prague.   -   Copyright  DavidHutt
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Hundreds of Czechs are in training to become healthcare volunteers and provide urgent assistance to beleaguered medical professionals, as the country battles with the highest daily increase in COVID-19 infections per population in Europe, with an average of 12,000 new cases each day over the past week.

Under a programme launched by the Czech Red Cross in September, when the second-wave began spiking, around 350 people have now become voluntary healthcare assistants and another 2,300 have registered an interest in the training, organisers say.

On the upper floor of a small hospital in the capital Prague, seven new volunteers are being put through their paces by an instructor who teaches them the basics of bedside care, from changing bedding to helping feed patients and preventing bedsores. After an intensive one-day course, they can be called upon to assist medical professionals in hospitals, nursing homes and in their local communities.

“The programme is designed to educate the public, improve understanding of the pandemic, and ease the burden on the medical services,” explained Richard Smejkal, head of the Czech Red Cross’ emergency response department.

Czech healthcare staff under pressure

An estimated 13,000 medical staff have been infected with coronavirus, including roughly 8% of the country’s nurses, the president of the Czech Medical Chamber Milan Kubek told local media on Monday.

At the same time, an even greater number have been forced to stay at home in order to self-quarantine, which has severely pushed the country’s medical facilities to the limit.

While the volunteers are not allowed to perform certain tasks that must still be done by qualified medical staff, such as changing infected bandages or giving medication to patients, they can help with basic bedside treatment, relieving the burden on an already depleted medical staff. The volunteers are also called in when there simply aren’t enough medical professionals.

“They are there to assist the nurses and doctors, not to replace them,” Smejkal said. “It is about task-sharing, not task-shifting.”

Michal Opletal, 34, who works as head of software development at a tech firm in Prague, has already finished his training and was last week asked to help out a local nursing home for Alzheimer patients. After receiving a call for assistance one afternoon, he arrived at the centre early the following day.

“The situation at the place was serious,” he explained. “More than half of the clients at the centre were COVID-positive. Many of them were fully immobile.”

And because of illness and self-quarantine measures, the number of healthcare workers was down to around a third, he added.

“The staff of the centre who stayed worked several days in a row doing what they could. It was a situation when a few men with strong hands came in handy,” he said.

His work mainly consisted of helping patients in and out of their beds and assisting them in eating, showering and moving around the centre.

DavidHutt
Richard Smejkal, head of the Czech Red Cross’ Emergency Response Department, says the volunteers will ease the burden on the already beleaguered medical professionals.DavidHutt

“Nothing difficult,” Opletal remarked, “but each of these activities helped relieve pressure on the regular nurses and assistants so that they take care of more specialised tasks.

Most of the time, the volunteers employ their new learned skills on friends and family, especially the elderly. If basic care that doesn’t require hospitalisation can be provided at home, Smejkal says, this frees up more time for already besieged professional medical staff to concentrate on more pressing matters.

Infection numbers rose to more than 15,000 in a single day for the first time on October 23, when there were a recorded 15,252 new cases, the Czech Republic’s highest daily tally. Covid-related deaths have doubled to 2,047 over just the past two weeks, while the number of patients in a serious condition was 772 as of Friday, according to data released by the health ministry.

Earlier this month, the Czech Medical Chamber asked Czech medical professionals working abroad to return home to help battle the second-wave spike. On October 24, the European Commission delivered the first consignment of 30 donated ventilators, with another 120 expected by early next month. Almost two dozen US National Guard medical staff are also expected to arrive soon, while the government is in talks with Berlin about the arrival of 100 German medical staff, Reuters recently reported.

'Happy and proud to help out'

No-one is pretending that the volunteer programme is a cure-all for the problems faced by the Czech Republic's overstretched and under-staffed medical services, but the volunteers themselves say they are pulling together as a community to help in whatever way they can during this crisis. It’s a wide cross-section of society who sign up, said Opletal, the trained volunteer, and on his course were college students, now with free time after universities were closed this month, the recently unemployed and workers whose employers gave them permission to volunteer.

“I am happy and proud that I am part of this,” he added. “It is a good idea to involve the volunteers in the health system and delegate minor problems on them while experienced staff can perform more specialised tasks.”

The training is free and paid for by the Czech Red Cross, while the ministry of health and medical associations are helping to coordinate where the volunteers are asked to help out. Many volunteers go on to receive more training after they complete the one-day course, especially in how to handle personal protective equipment (PPE).

Moreover, the Red Cross is keen for the volunteers not to be used merely as unpaid help, with the expectation that some form of payment should be forthcoming if they are asked to work for a hospital, clinic or nursing home on a regular basis.

Smejkal doesn’t know for how long the volunteer programme will continue but he says there is still huge interest from the public, while the medical services are likely to continue needing assistance over the winter period.

Local media has reported on the increasing difficultly of forecasting when the second wave will peak and when new infection numbers begin to decline, as the government has in recent weeks only introduced tougher measures in piecemeal fashion, whereas it imposed a far-reaching lockdown in less than a week in March.

After infection numbers began to rise in September, the central government was initially hesitant about re-imposing strict measures. Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who stressed the economic problems of another lockdown, is thought to have clashed with then-health minister Adam Vojtech, who in early September publicly said that another lockdown was on the table.

Vojtech resigned on September 21, but just a month into the job his successor Roman Prymula, an epidemiologist and the government commissioner for research in healthcare, was ordered to resign by Babis after photos emerged of him leaving a restaurant ordered closed because of his own restrictions just hours earlier and without a face-mask last week. Only the Czech president can formally dismiss a cabinet minister.

Another lockdown in all but name was imposed earlier this month. A night-time curfew will come into effect on October 28, while the state of emergency, which expires on November 3, will likely be extended until early December after the government this week asked parliament for the powers to do so.

“Unless a miracle happens, we can do nothing else but further tighten the measures, unfortunately,” Prime Minister Babis said over the weekend.