BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's hospitals are under "extraordinary" pressure from rising coronavirus infections and hundreds of volunteers have joined hospitals to help treat patients, the surgeon general said on Wednesday.
Like much of central and eastern Europe, Hungary managed to curb infections during the first wave of the pandemic in March-April last year with fast and strict lockdown measures.
However, the third wave this year has swept the region with a vengeance, with Hungary overtaking the Czech Republic for the world's worst per capita death rate from COVID-19 in the past seven days, according to figures from Our World in Data.
While new infections in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have started to decline now, in Hungary and Poland new infections, fuelled by the more contagious variant first found in Britain, have increased further this week.
Poland reported a record daily tally of almost 30,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday.
A total of 18,952 people have died of coronavirus in Hungary, a country with a population of close to 10 million.
"I am asking you to do everything possible to avoid getting infected and avoid having to go to the hospital as hospitals are struggling under an extraordinary burden," Surgeon General Cecilia Muller told a briefing.
Muller said so far around 500 volunteers - health students and skilled healthcare staff - have joined hospitals after a plea went out from the government earlier this week.
Earlier this month, about 4,000 medical workers quit the public health system over reforms begun by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, aggravating a years-long shortage of medical staff during the third wave of the pandemic.
Hungary, which is at the top in the EU with vaccine imports and per capita vaccination rates according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, will start vaccinating workers in critical infrastructure, such as the Budapest Transport Company.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves; Editing by Alison Williams and Alex Richardson)