Two men who died in the southern province of Małopolska are Poland’s first Covid deaths linked to the Omicron variant, reported Poland’s health ministry today. Both victims were elderly – aged 92 and 85 – suffered from comorbidities and were unvaccinated.
After first appearing in the country in mid-December, Omicron now accounts for between 7% and 8% of new cases, up from between 1% and 2.5% in previous weeks, according to health ministry spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz.
There have been 193 cases of Omicron detected in Poland so far. Most of these were recorded in the provinces of Pomerania (62) and Mazovia (53), the latter of which contains the capital, Warsaw.
“Omicron is dangerous,” said Andrusiewicz. “We have at least the first two deaths of people infected with the new version of the virus. These people could probably be alive if they had been vaccinated.”
Almost 56% of people in Poland are fully vaccinated, a figure that has hardly risen since September and which is well below the European Union average of almost 70%. In recent weeks, over 70% of Covid deaths in Poland have been of unvaccinated people.
As more cases of Omicron emerge in Poland, the health ministry has decided to ramp up genetic sequencing from 2,000 to 5,000 weekly samples.
Up to now, Poland has performed relatively little testing compared to other countries. The current 100,000 or so tests per week can be increased up to a capacity of 200,000 per day, said Andrusiewicz. “If necessary, we will carry out more.”
Daily infection numbers, after falling from the peak of the fourth wave in early December, have begun to increase again since the start of January. Given how many people are already hospitalised with Covid – around 20,000 – Poland is facing a potentially “catastrophic scenario”, the health minister warned last week.
As the country braces for the upcoming fifth wave – which the prime minister’s chief COVID-19 advisor warned would be a “tsunami” that could see up to a million people hospitalised – local authorities have been charged with increasing the capacity of Covid units.
The health ministry said it was expecting plans to be submitted by Saturday that would allow for the country to increase its Covid bed capacity to 40,000. If hospitalisations continue to rise in early February, capacity will be increased to 60,000 beds.
Andrusiewicz, however, said that converting half of Poland’s total capacity of 120,000 hospital beds to serve Covid patients was a “last resort” and “worst-case scenario”.
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She is a regular writer for The Times, The Economist and Al Jazeera English, and has also featured in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.