Illustration – Photo: MTI

Over 80 percent of coronavirus-related fatalities still among the elderly

Decision on restrictions expected today

Schools and kindergartens in Hungary will open a week once 2.5 million people have been vaccinated, the prime minister's chief of staff told a press conference. All teachers will be inoculated before schools reopen, Gergely Gulyas told a press briefing.

High schools, public schools and kindergartens are likely to reopen on April 12 or 19, he said, and called on teachers to register to be vaccinated.

Hungary’s health-care system is well-equipped and staffed to “treat everyone, albeit under a strained work schedule, even if caseload climbs further,” Gulyas said.

A European Union summit on handling the pandemic will start later on Friday as caseload is rising across Europe, he said.

Gulyas said the number of new infections per 1,000 citizens in Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia was higher than in Hungary.

However, the “situation is bad in Hungary, too,” even though the health-care system is able to handle the growing burden, he said, adding that 10,441 beds and 1,678 ventilators were unoccuplied.

Gulyas added, however, that the only solution to eradicating the pandemic was vaccination. Only a very few people contract the disease after having received the vaccine, he added.

He noted that some 650,000 pensioners have not yet registered for the vaccine. The chief medical officer has written them a letter encouraging them to register, he added.

In elderly care homes, which were among the first institutions in which vaccinations were administered, the number of new infections has fallen to below 1 percent, Gulyas said.

Meanwhile, sluggish vaccine deliveries are making the progress of the inoculation campaign very uncertain, he said.

The situation is expected to improve in April thanks to “an unprecedented number of doses” arriving from China and Russia, he said. Faltering delivery form the European Union will hopefully also improve in the coming months, he added.

A decision on the schedule to reopen shops in Hungary is expected at the meeting of the operative board in charge of controlling the epidemic on Friday, he said.

Gulyas said the operative board was looking into a proposal of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on allowing one customer per 10 square meters in shops. He said such a regulation would be welcome, but “there is no way to tell how many people would queue up with Easter coming up.”

Hungary’s inoculation rate is second only to Malta’s in the EU, giving rise to the hope that herd immunity would set in early, Gulyas said.

Over 80 percent of coronavirus-related fatalities were among the elderly, Gulyas noted, adding that once they were inoculated, hopefully the current “grim numbers” would fall sharply.

Regarding reopening the economy, Gulyas said the government was working on a plan with “clear objectives” linked to the number of people inoculated, he said.

In response to a question, Gulyas said the third wave of the pandemic was likely to be nearing its peak. Average concentrations of the virus in Hungary’s wastewater are now stable compared with a week ago, he said, adding that it had taken about 7-10 days for the concentration levels to shift. Gulyas said there was “a good chance” that Hungary could be done with vaccinating those over the age of 65 who have registered for a jab in the first half of April or even before Easter.

Concerning the two new vaccines that have been licenced by Hungary, Gulyas said the government had not yet signed a purchase agreement for either one. Hungary has, however, put in an order for 4,360,000 doses of Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose Janssen jab, he added. “As for when that will arrive, the answer to that lies with Brussels,” he said.

In response to another question, Gulyas emphasised that Hungary was struggling with a shortage of vaccines, not vaccination points.

Asked about AstraZeneca’s vaccine deliveries, Gulyas said the health authorities were doing their best to make sure that those who get their first AstraZeneca shot can get the second one within 12 weeks. He added, however, that this was becoming more difficult with the British-Swedish drugmaker struggling to meet its delivery targets.

Asked about the Sinopharm vaccine, he said that unless mistakes are made locally, there should be no reason for GP clinics no to receive second doses on time.

Asked about Russia’s failure to meet its target of Sputnik V deliveries by March 23, the Gulyas said Hungary was scheduled to receive a total of 1.1 million doses of the vaccine next week, adding that the delays in the vaccine deliveries ordered through the EU were far more significant.

Asked about the capacities of Hungary’s hospitals, Gulyas said it was “untrue” that hospitals were understaffed or that some patients were not being cared for at all. All patients are getting the care they need, he said, adding that Hungary had enough ventilators, hospital beds and medicine to treat everyone.

He noted that so far 500 medical students and graduate volunteers have applied to the National Hospital Directorate-General to help ease the burden on hospital staff treating Covid-19 patients.

Regarding Hungary’s Covid-19 death rate, Gulyas said the country was among those mounting an effective defence against the pandemic.

He said that whereas Hungary had always managed to make timely decisions regarding its response measures, other countries had often acted in haste. “Hungary has been consistent with its handling of the pandemic, and has better indicators when we take real data into consideration,” Gulyas said.

He dismissed as “fake news” reports that not all Covid patients were getting sufficient care, adding that there are currently 1,784 people in intensive care units.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said Hungary did not require international assistance to ensure that its health-care sector can treat patients.

He also said that local council-run outpatient clinics would remain under the administration of hospitals until the expiration of the special legal order imposed in connection with Hungary’s pandemic defence measures.

As regards Hungary’s immunity certificates, Gulyas said the government had no plans to change the document’s contents. The European Commission has yet to finalise its own plans for the European vaccine passport, he said, noting that it would also have to be debated by the European Parliament.

“By the time there will actually be a European vaccine passport, the continent hopefully will be done with the pandemic,” he said. “Even if we’re talking about a fast-tracked procedure, this sort of legislative process takes two months.”

On another subject, Gulyas said only those who have been vaccinated will be allowed to attend the postponed Euro 2020 soccer Championship matches staged in Hungary. He noted that the government’s plan was to have everyone vaccinated by the end of May, adding that, hopefully, “this period will be behind us by June.” He noted that all sporting events were being held behind closed doors.

Asked about the International Vaccination Centre’s announcement that it was paying back down-payments for Covid vaccines it had received from clients following a “change in the legal environment”, Gulyas said that vaccine purchases in Hungary and all EU member states were being handled by the government. He noted that Hungary’s consumer protection authority has launched an investigation into the practices of the International Vaccination Centre.

Meanwhile, as regards Hungary’s ability to continue enforcing its interests, Gulyas said that given Prime Minister Viktor Orban was one of Europe’s longest-serving premiers, he did not believe Hungary had any reason to be concerned about partisan changes on the European political scene having a substantial impact on the country.

Asked about daylight saving time, Gulyas said Hungary was open to ending the practice, adding, however, that this required majority support in the EU.

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