PRAGUE — Czech President Miloš Zeman on Thursday appointed Jan Blatný as the country’s health minister to succeed Roman Prymula, who was forced to resign after being photographed violating his own lockdown restrictions.
The 50-year-old Blatný, who was hand-picked by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, is a respected pediatric hematologist, specializing in the treatment of children with blood clotting disorders. He heads the department of pediatric hematology at Brno University Hospital.
However, unlike his predecessor, who served for only 38 days, he’s not an epidemiologist. He takes over the ministry at a critical time in the Czech Republic’s struggle to contain the pandemic. The number of COVID-19 infections and deaths from the illness continue to rise, placing a severe strain on the country’s health care capacity.
On Tuesday, 15,663 new infections and 146 deaths were recorded, the highest numbers registered since the start of the epidemic. The Czech Republic now has the second-highest per capita weekly rate of infections in the EU, trailing only Belgium.
The rampant epidemic is also taking a heavy toll on frontline healthcare workers. The president of the Czech Medical Chamber, Milan Kubek, told Czech Radio-Radiožurnál that some 15,500 health professionals, including more than 2,900 doctors, are currently infected. And the numbers continue to rise, with hundreds falling ill every day.
Kubek advised Blatný to impose a hard lockdown because the hospitals are heading for a “disaster.”
“Mathematical models show that at the current rate of epidemic spread, the capacity of hospitals will be filled around November 10,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s next. There’s no plan.”
He warned that when hospitals are overwhelmed, they can’t treat comparatively benign conditions, such as appendicitis, “because there will be no beds or medical staff.”
The Czech government is actively recruiting medics from abroad, including some 30 military doctors from the United States, and has begun setting up emergency field hospitals.
On Tuesday, Prymula further tightened restrictions by imposing a curfew for all but essential reasons, such as work or medical emergencies, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Movement during the day is now restricted to shopping, traveling to and from work, essential family trips and going to a park or the countryside.
In addition, all shops except pharmacies and petrol stations that haven’t been previously ordered closed are now banned from opening on Sundays and must be shut from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays.
The outgoing health minister had previously mandated the closure of schools and all non-essential shops and ordered the wearing of face masks indoors and in most outdoor situations.
These restrictions are set to expire with the state of emergency on November 3, but it appears certain that the government will extend the emergency measures.