Poland on Tuesday became the latest European nation to record 100,000 deaths related to COVID-19, a number that was surpassed as the country is bracing for a renewed surge of infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.
Nearly a quarter of those deaths — some 24,000 — occurred in the most recent wave of infection that began in October, a period in which vaccines have been widely available in the central European nation of 38 million people.
Health minister Adam Niedzielski said Tuesday that 493 more people with COVID-19 had died, pushing the overall pandemic death toll to 100,254.
The bleak marker comes as daily new infections have fallen following a peak in what officials call the country's “fourth wave” of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant. But with the Omicron variant spreading, another large infection wave is looming.
The first two deaths from Omicron were reported on Monday, both in elderly and unvaccinated people.
Niedzielski said over 18,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalised, making this “the most difficult situation compared to other waves.”
Poland has struggled through the pandemic with a health care sector strapped by limited funding and the emigration of many medical professionals to western Europe in the past two decades.
According to OECD statistics, Poland is the EU nation with the lowest number of working doctors in proportion to its population — just 2.4 to 1,000 inhabitants compared with 4.5 in Germany.
Poland also has only 5 nurses to 1,000 inhabitants, below the EU average of 8 and far below richer countries like Germany, which has 14.
The vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the last wave — 83 per cent — are of unvaccinated people. Among people under 44, more than 90 per cent of those who died were not vaccinated.
The vaccination rate in Poland is nearly 56 per cent — much lower than countries in western Europe but much higher than some other central European countries like Bulgaria and Romania.
Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki's government has sought to encourage vaccinations but is also up against fears and hesitancy among some in the population — and sometimes among the governing Law and Justice, PiS party's own supporters.
In recent days, a school superintendent and party loyalist in the province surrounding Krakow, Barbara Nowak, said she opposed making vaccines compulsory for teachers, an idea supported by the health minister.
She claimed that “the consequences of this experiment are not fully established”.
Her words were sharply criticized by the health and education ministers and medical professionals, but the education minister has refused calls for her dismissal.
Poland now joins Russia, the U.K., Italy, France, and Germany as European nations that have recorded over 100,000 deaths.