By Marine Strauss and Yves Herman
ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgian hospitals have been ordered to reserve 60% of their intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients as a third wave of infections takes hold, doctors said on Wednesday.
With the resurgent pandemic ravaging Europe, Belgium, home to NATO and the European Union, already has one of the world's highest per capita death rates and Prime Minister Alexander de Croo has warned of a breakdown of its health system.
Infections have doubled in recent days from a daily average of about 2,000 cases over the past three months, putting pressure on hospitals.
As of Tuesday, the number of patients in ICU was up by almost a quarter from the last week - to 738 - with 2,867 people in hospital. Around 240 Belgians are admitted to hospital daily.
"We hope we can top off the curve in the next few weeks but currently we are more worried about what is going to happen in the next few days," said Niels Van Regenmortel, head ICU doctor at ZNA Stuivenberg hospital in the port city of Antwerp.
Out of 31 ICU beds Van Regenmortel has available, 12 are already occupied by COVID-19 patients. Twenty of the 31 must be available for COVID patients by Tuesday as hospitals increase their reserved beds to 60% from 50%.
"We keep our fingers crossed and hope that this will be the last true wave, and we hope that the vaccination programme will be at full speed by the end of May," Van Regenmortel said.
More than 22,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the country of 11 million people.
In fresh challenge to efforts to contain the surge in infections, a court ordered the government on Wednesday to lift restrictions on people's movement within 30 days or face a fine after rights campaigners said an extension of curbs in February was illegal because it was not communicated publicly.
Belgium is appealing against the decision, meaning nothing changes for now.
Separately, the country had set out a plan for reopening schools on April 19 and bars, restaurants from May 1, but imposed new restrictions last week, including closure of non-essential stores and extension of a ban on non-essential travel.
($1 = 0.8526 euros)
(Reporting by Yves Herman and Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; Editing by Alison Williams)