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Hospitals in Hungary are under unprecedented strain as more Covid-19 patients are hospitalized than at any other time of the pandemic, a result of a more transmissible variant of the virus first discovered in Great Britain that is sweeping the country.
On Thursday, 8,329 people were being treated for Covid-19 in hospitals, up from a previous peak of 8,045 in early December, while the number of patients being treated on ventilators also continues to rise dramatically. On Thursday, 911 patients were receiving artificial ventilation, nearing the maximum capacity threshold of 1,000 projected in December by Semmelweis Medical University rector Béla Merkely.
The rector also said this week that 80-90% of Covid-19 cases in Budapest are now from the British variant, which is more transmissible and evidence suggests is more deadly.
Another record was set on Thursday with 8,312 new reported cases of Covid-19, up from the previous peak of 6,819 in late November.
Hospitals around the country are reporting overburdened Covid wards and staff shortages, and say the average age of those being treated in intensive wards is decreasing. A hospital in the town of Hatvan reported that it no longer has capacity to accept new patients, and that it is primarily treating patients in their 40s and 50s. A hospital in the town of Tata announced that it would close for two weeks as it sends its doctors to the nearby city of Tatabánya, where specialists were overwhelmed with new cases.
Doctors in several hospitals told 444 that they are having to choose which patients to admit to intensive wards since space is so limited. Those deemed to have a higher chance of survival, often younger patients with no chronic health conditions but whose conditions are deteriorating rapidly, are given precedent for intensive ward admission, while elderly people with underlying conditions are often not admitted. Nurses in intensive wards are often caring for 6-8 patients each, far exceeding the ideal 1:1 or 1:2 ratio that ensures adequate care.
"We're losing people that have 20, 30 or 40 years of life left ahead of them," one doctor at a countryside hospital told 444. "You try to protect yourself, but I can't help but think that this person has a 15-year-old child whose high school graduation they won't be able to see, much less meet their grandchild."
Two doctors at hospitals in Budapest reported that the average age of patients in intensive care has gone down significantly. Last spring, the most critical cases were typically among 80 to 90-year-old patients, and among 50 to 60-year-old patients during the second wave late last year. Now, the doctor said, those in their 30s, 40s and 50s are most represented in the intensive wards.
Hungarian health officials expect the burden on hospitals to increase in coming weeks, projecting a peak of the latest surge some time in April. In a radio interview last week, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said the number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals could go as high as 20,000.
A new round of lockdown measures went into effect Monday, including the closure of most businesses and suspension of kindergarten and primary school classes. Restrictions in place since November 11 will remain in force, but Hungary's pandemic measures remain relatively loose compared to other nearby countries. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, two nearby countries that are also struggling with skyrocketing surges, have ordered the mandatory wearing of FFP2 masks in public areas and implemented travel restrictions within the countries.
Meanwhile, football clubs from Liverpool, England and Leipzig, Germany have travelled to Hungary twice in three weeks to play Champions League matches in Budapest, despite Hungary having higher coronavirus infections rates than the UK or Germany.
The government continues to hope that a high rate of vaccination will be the key to overcoming the pandemic's third wave: in a Thursday magazine interview, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said "the coronavirus and the vaccine are running a race with each other." Hungary currently has the second-highest rate of vaccination in the European Union with more than 1.1 million people having received at least a first dose so far, roughly 11.5% of the adult population.
On Thursday, an additional 450,000 doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine arrived in Budapest bringing the total deliveries of that jab to 1 million.
Hungary challenges rule of law mechanism at ECJ
Hungary and Poland on Thursday launched a challenge with the European Court of Justice over a so-called rule of law mechanism in the European Union's budget that would link payment of EU funds to upholding of democratic standards.
The decision to bring the case before the ECJ came on the final day allowed for launching a challenge to the December budget agreement, ensuring that a final decision will be reached as late as possible. Poland and Hungary, the two largest net recipients of EU funds, fiercely opposed the rule of law conditions during negotiations last year, arguing they would be used as an ideological tool to punish countries that reject immigration. All other EU member states supported the measures, which were designed to protect EU funds from fraud and corruption.
The two countries in November vetoed adoption of the 2021-2027 budget and a coronavirus recovery package together worth €1.8 trillion, angering other member states desperate to receive financial aid amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a Facebook post Thursday, Justice Minister Judit Varga wrote that the rule of law mechanism "seriously infringes legal certainty."
"The left went too far when it launched an attack on Hungary in the middle of the pandemic," Varga wrote. "We repelled this attack and managed to defend Hungarian interests concerning the EU budget. However, what is unlawful cannot be left without a word...Let common sense win again!"
At a Thursday session of the European Parliament in Brussels, Commissioner for Budget and Administration Johannes Hahn said the rule of law mechanism was a "historical achievement for the Union" which gives it the tools to protect its budget from breaches of the principles of the rule of law. The Commission would initiate procedures under the mechanism without delay if necessary, he added.
Klubrádió frequency application denied by Media Council
Hungary's media regulator has denied liberal broadcaster Klubrádió's application for an FM radio frequency, all but guaranteeing the station will be able to broadcast online-only in the future.
The Media Council argued that Klubrádió's application for 92.9 FM "contained contradictions and objective errors," and that its programming plan "did not meet the basic requirements of radio broadcasting." Klubrádió was the only eligible applicant for the frequency, which the Media Council earlier declined to extend citing minor data reporting infractions by the station.
As we reported in February, Klubrádió challenged the Media Council's decision not to grant the automatic license extension in a Budapest court, but the challenge was dismissed. The station argued that the Media Council had acted discriminatorily, claiming that other stations had committed the same or worse offenses but still had their licenses extended. The Council is a five-member body, and each of the current members were nominated by the ruling Fidesz party.
The decisions by the Media Council and court led to accusations of a continuing media crackdown in Hungary by the Fidesz-led government. The European Commission in February urged the government to allow Klubrádió to continue broadcasting, and said the loss of its broadcasting frequency had occurred “on the basis of highly questionable legal grounds."
Several foreign departments and numerous international media outlets reacted to the case, including Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, who wrote in a statement, "We are deeply concerned about declining media pluralism in Hungary. The imminent loss of the broadcasting license of one of the country’s most popular radio stations, Klubradio, threatens the departure of yet another independent voice from Hungary’s airwaves."
On a statement on its website, Klubrádió wrote that it would "challenge the unlawful Media Council decision, and will continue its programming in an unchanged form online, independently of future court decisions."
Hungary's Post Office to cease deliveries of daily newspapers, promotional materials
The Hungarian Post Office will no longer deliver daily newspapers or unaddressed promotional materials including political flyers beginning this summer, a move that could increase the financial burden on political parties and smaller publications.
The Post Office announced its decision to cease delivery of daily newspapers at the end of February, saying the expenses for such deliveries would have to be covered by publishers beginning on July 1. The state postal service said declining circulation had made delivery of the papers economically unviable, but critics have suggested the move is meant to place increased financial burden on small independent publications, leaving only large, well-financed media conglomerates with adequate resources to get their publications distributed.
On Wednesday, the postal service announced that it would no longer deliver unaddressed materials such as commercial advertisements, free press products and political ads beginning on July 1. The decision could increase the financial burden on smaller political parties seeking to reach voters with campaign materials ahead of elections in 2022.