2020.10.21 18:00

Understaffed and overwhelmed: Lithuania's health officials struggle to contain pandemic

Augustinas Šemelis, Milda Vilikanskytė, LRT TV, LRT.lt2020.10.21 18:00

With the number of daily coronavirus cases skyrocketing, employees of Lithuania's National Public Health Centre (NVSC) are struggling to trace the infections. The centre is also shedding staff and is not sufficiently resourced for the challenge of Covid-19.

One Friday evening in September, Žygimantas Zabieta, his wife and her friend had dinner together. The following day, the friend fell ill and tested positive for Covid-19.

Read more: Rising Covid-19 cases overwhelm contact-tracing capabilities in Vilnius

To keep the infection from spreading, epidemiologists of the NVSC had to contact everyone she had been in contact with and instruct them what to do. Zabieta says that he got the phone call only five days later.

“The test was done at a private clinic on Saturday, the information reached the NVSC on Monday, they got in touch with the infected person on Tuesday, and with her contacts on Wednesday,” Zabieta told LRT TV.

The friend, Eglė Dmukauskaitė, confirmed that she had to wait half a week for instructions after testing positive for the infection.

“For four days, I had no information about what exactly I was supposed to do, what people I'd been in contact with were supposed to do: get tested or to simply self-isolate,” she said.

She notified her contacts herself and forwarded their details – as well as a list of places she had visited prior to the test – to the NVSC.

In recent weeks, over a fifth of new coronavirus cases – including Dmukauskaitė's – remained untraced, meaning that the public health officials could not tell where and how a person got infected. On Wednesday, 96 of 311 cases could not be traced.

If the share of untraced infections exceeds those in known clusters, containing the virus will be virtually impossible, said NVSC representative Daiva Razmuvienė.

With daily infections on the rise, the centre's staff are struggling to keep up, she said.

The NVSC Vilnius department has 16 epidemiologists, each able to trace up to four cases a day. On Wednesday, there were 68 new infections in Vilnius County.

To make matters worse, some 40 NVSC employees have recently quit.

“Their main reasons were uncompetitive pay, enormous workloads, unlimited hours and immense public pressure,” said the NVSC's Vilnius department head Rolanda Lingienė. “As well as a huge responsibility weighing on their shoulders.”

On weekends, the centre's staff is even smaller, with only eight epidemiologists tracing infections in Vilnius County.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has said that the NVSC should be better funded.

“The problem is that we're failing to adequately fund our frontline services: there are not enough staff, not enough money for the payroll,” Nausėda said earlier this week.

He has also suggested to raise the NVSC's funding in next year's government budget which is currently making its way through the Lithuanian parliament.