Mounting COVID-19 deaths dim Hungary's hopes of reopening

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By Anita Komuves and Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary on Wednesday reported coronavirus fatalities reaching a new high and doctors described hospitals filling beyond capacity, signalling the government may be forced to postpone a reopening scheduled to begin in mid-April.

The central European country of 10 million recorded 302 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, its highest daily toll of the pandemic, and 6,700 new COVID-19 cases, the government said.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who faces an election in a year, is walking a tightrope between a lockdown to tame the COVID-19 surge and the need to reopen the economy to avoid a second year of deep recession.

Hungary has had the highest daily per capita fatalities in the world for several days, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Its health care system has come under extreme stress, the government has said, despite vaccinating a fifth of the population in one of the fastest inoculation drives in Europe.

There were more than 12,000 coronavirus patients in hospital on Tuesday, 1,492 of them on ventilator, the government said.

Citigroup analyst Eszter Gargyan said she expected a "longer period to see a deceleration in new cases. Therefore a reopening based on vaccinating the elderly... may not be enough to halt further rise in hospitalizations."

"This in our view suggests that the government may be either forced to postpone reopening at least a few more weeks or may be forced to impose another lockdown already in the second quarter before vaccinations would allow broader reopening in the third."

Orban has said a reopening may begin once the inoculation rate reaches 25% for those who have had a first dose, although there are indications that goal may be pushed back.

RULES BEND UNDER PRESSURE

Hospital capacity reached its limits a long time ago, doctors say.

"Every shift is a struggle," Gabor, who works at a large provincial hospital, told Reuters. He did not want to give his name because he was not authorised to talk to media. [L1N2LT0JM]

"If a patient deteriorates on my watch and I have to refer them to ICU, they usually don't have room... But the ER also cannot send me patients because we are full, too."

He said the government may install more intensive care beds but it may or may not have the proper working equipment, much less the staff to operate it.

"So we break the rules," he said. "If I cannot send the patients to the main ICU, we will put them on the machines right here and hope they survive the night. It happens a lot. If they do survive, the ICU may make room for them. Patients may improve in there... and a lot of them die."

(Editing by Catherine Evans, William Maclean)

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