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Pandemic poses 'unprecedented' challenges for Greek hospitals

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Patras (Greece) (AFP)

The hospital that treated Greece's first coronavirus fatality is suffering from a shortage of protective equipment and a quarter of its pathologists have tested positive, doctors say.

Warning that April will be the "critical" month in the fight against COVID-19, officials are scrambling to secure medical supplies for overwhelmed hospitals already understaffed after years of cuts.

As of 1600 GMT on Wednesday, Greece's population of 11 million had recorded 1,415 coronavirus infections and 50 deaths, the first coming at the Patras University Hospital in the north of the Peloponnese peninsula.

A 66-year-old retired teacher who had gone on a Holy Land coach tour to Israel and Egypt in February died at the hospital on March 12.

Around 50 people on the same tour also fell ill, constituting Greece's first mass coronavirus outbreak.

The hospital was taken by surprise over the "almost uncontrollable" epidemic, said Haralambos Gogos, an infectious disease specialist at the facility.

"It was a shocking event for us, the first death in Greece that ended up in Patras hospital," Gogos told AFP.

Stelios Tsohatzis, vice president of the association of hospital doctors in the western region of Achaea, said pathologists at the Patras hospital insisted on testing the Holy Land traveller even though Israel was not on the list of at-risk destinations.

"At the time, the formal instructions from the public health organisation were to test travellers (mainly) from China, Iran and Korea upon arrival to hospital," Tsohatzis said.

- 'April will be more difficult' -

The pandemic exposed weaknesses in Greece's public health system after a decade of dwindling state spending and staff cuts.

A quarter of Greek national output was wiped out and official unemployment soared to nearly a third of the workforce during the country's 2010-18 debt crisis, originally sparked by reckless state spending and misreporting of fiscal data to the EU.

Thousands of trained doctors emigrated during the crisis, most of them to Germany and Britain.

The Patras hospital -- one of the main facilities nationwide charged with handling coronavirus cases -- was already short of 55 doctors and 175 medical staff before the pandemic broke, said Dimitris Ziazias, head of the Achaea hospital doctors association.

This week, the Greek government said it had recruited 4,200 medical and nursing staff in recent days, with more than 2,000 already deployed nationwide.

It put out a call for volunteers including medical students and retired experts last week.

The number of intensive care beds has increased by 54 percent to 870 in two months, the government has said.

"April is particularly critical... The situation is still fluid," Nikos Hardalias, deputy minister for civil protection, said Tuesday.

"April will be more difficult, but hopefully sometime soon we will see this epidemic retreat," said Gogos of the Patras hospital.

- Tapping the private sector -

The government says it will requisition private health facilities if the need arises.

The reinforcements cannot come soon enough, Tsohatzis said, adding that health staff face "unprecedented" challenges.

A quarter of the pathologists at the Patras hospital's pathology unit are in quarantine themselves after testing positive, he noted.

"In its previous framework, the health system could not address something like this. It was already borderline as regards the staffing and funding of hospitals," Tsohatzis said.

There is a critical shortage of protective masks, goggles and suits, he said.

The government is under fire for giving 30 million euros ($33 million) to private hospitals for intensive care beds and virus tests.

To deflect criticism, some private institutions are stepping up donations.

One of the leading private health groups in Greece this week said it had donated an entire clinic to the state for use during the pandemic.

The Onassis Foundation -- bequeathed by late shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis -- this week said it had bought 13.5 million protective masks for the Greek health system at a cost of 7.75 million euros.

In Piraeus, a 3D printing enthusiast has formed a team to create hundreds of protective face visors.

Five hundred visors will be donated to the health ministry and the group has an order for another 7,000, Simos Kokkinos, co-founder of Hellas Covid-19 3D printing supplies, tod AFP.

And Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has publicly thanked an Albania-born clothes shop owner in the northern town of Grevena who sewed and donated 600 cloth masks to the local hospital.

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