Written by Stephen McGratt, The Associated Press
Bucharest, Romania (AFP) – Stricter epidemic measures took effect in Romania on Saturday as authorities hope to calm sharply rising coronavirus cases amid fears that the next wave of the virus could strain the country’s health care system.
In mid-December, Romania reported less than a thousand COVID-19 infections per day, but over the past week, daily cases have risen to about 6,000. It’s the largest number of infections since early November when cases were on the decline after the fourth wave of the virus.
During the winter holiday period hundreds of thousands of Romanians returned home from other countries, many from the West, raising concerns about the threat of the rapidly spreading omicron variant. Romania has so far confirmed nearly 300 cases of the new type.
Health Minister Alexandru Ravella said in a press briefing Friday that Romania is “already in the fifth wave of the epidemic” and Omicron is expected to become the dominant virus strain.
“Right now, there’s an intermittent (of the omicron) transmission,” he said. “But it is very likely that in the coming days, coming weeks, we will see community transmission supported by this new strain.”
New measures on Saturday include the mandatory wearing of face masks in outdoor and indoor public places, and fabric masks have been banned. Authorities said failure to comply with mask rules could result in hefty fines of up to 500 euros ($567).
Bars and restaurants can remain open until 10 p.m. and operate at 50% or 30% capacity depending on the infection rate in the area, and COVID-19 cards are required. The same applies to sporting events, gyms and cinemas. Meanwhile, the periods of quarantine and isolation have been reduced.
Octavian Gorma, a physician and healthcare statistician, said the new pandemic measures are “mostly cosmetic” and compared them to “giving aspirin to a cancer patient.”
“These measures were not intended to curb the epidemic, but to create the illusion that they are doing something more than they are doing in a delta wave,” Jorma told The Associated Press. “We have a perfect storm in Romania… We will again see record numbers of hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths.”
During October and November, Romania recorded pandemic spikes in infections and deaths from the coronavirus, and at one point it had the highest fatality rate globally. The situation has paralyzed the country’s aging healthcare system.
Romania, an EU country with a population of about 19.5 million, is the second least immunized against COVID-19, with only 40% of full vaccinations. Experts blame widespread misinformation, extreme distrust of government authorities, and an ineffective national campaign among the reasons for vaccine hesitation.
“I am not sure the epidemic can be controlled in Romania any longer because the advocates of exile have clearly won the ‘hearts and minds’ war,” said Jorma.
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