Romania is battling the worst Covid-19 wave to date. Widespread suspicion about vaccines does not help – Community News
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Romania is battling the worst Covid-19 wave to date. Widespread suspicion about vaccines does not help

“When I started this job, I never thought I would experience something like this,” says Ionita. “I never thought that such a catastrophe could happen, that we would end up sending entire families to their graves.”

Several floors up, all but one of the beds in the hospital’s now expanded intensive care units were full. A nurse changed the sheets on the one empty bed—empty, because the person occupying it was now in the morgue.

Romania has one of Europe’s lowest vaccination rates.
Just under 36% of the population has been vaccinated, although the country’s vaccination campaign got off to a good start last December.

Medical workers and officials attribute this low vaccination coverage to several factors, including suspicion of authorities, deeply held religious beliefs and a flood of misinformation circulating through social media.

dr.  Alexandra Munteanu, pictured at the Palatul Copiilor vaccination center in Bucharest on Nov. 16, is ready to vaccinate as many people as needed — if only they would come.

When Dr Alexandra Munteanu, 32, arrived for duty at one of Bucharest’s vaccination centers after a night shift at the hospital, she found that turnout was low. She is stunned that the seriousness of the disease does not seem to have dawned on her. “There are a lot of doctors, myself included, who work with Covid patients, and we’re trying to tell people that this disease really exists,” she said.

One of the country’s most vocal and high-profile anti-vaxxers is Diana Sosoaca, a member of the Romanian Senate. In one of her many public stunts, she tried to prevent people from entering a vaccine center in her constituency in the northeast of the country.

“If you love your kids, stop the vaccinations,” she says in a video clip on her Facebook page. “Don’t kill them!”

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The vaccines offered in Romania have been extensively tested for use in children and have been shown to be safe and effective, but that hasn’t stopped her and others from spreading wild rumors on social media and local television.

Officials and medical personnel are annoyed that public figures have done so much to undermine their efforts.

“Look at the reality,” said Colonel Dr. Valeriu Gheorghita, an army doctor who leads the national vaccination campaign. “We have our intensive care units full of patients. We have a lot of new cases. Unfortunately, we have hundreds of deaths every day. So this is the reality. And over 90% of the patients who died were not vaccinated.”

A banner in Bucharest shows medics working on Covid-19 patients with the following message:

A huge banner has been hung in Bucharest, covering half the facade of a building on a major boulevard. “They’re suffocating. They’re begging us. They’re sorry,” are the words printed in solid black letters over black-and-white photos of medics struggling to care for Covid patients in an intensive care unit.

Downstairs, few passers-by look at the poster, and even fewer wanted to share their thoughts with CNN. Soon, however, that banner will also be on other major cities in the country.

“There is manipulation,” said one woman who gave her name only as Claudia, adding, “Some people don’t believe in the vaccines.”

Mayor: ‘It is not a safe vaccine’

Nowhere is that suspicion more evident than in rural areas, where Covid-19 vaccination rates plummet to about half that in urban areas.
Suceava County, an hour’s flight northeast of Bucharest, has the lowest vaccination coverage in the country.

Here, the main hospital manager, Dr. Alexandru Calancea, 40, on the particularity of this region, where he was born and raised.

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“This county is very religious. This is an area with a strong religious tradition and many religious people. […] Very little [priests] are pro-vaccine, and I certainly know some who are anti-vax. Most of them choose not to say anything, for or against. We have evidence, from the hospital, of patients who come from the same religious communities where their priest, or their pastor, has advised them not to get vaccinated.”

Just outside Suceava, in the village of Bosanci, such a pastor also acts as a village mayor. Neculai Miron was one of the most outspoken anti-vax public figures in the country, and today is no different.

“We are not against vaccination, but we want to verify it to allay our concerns because there have been many side effects,” he told CNN. “We don’t think the vaccine components are very safe. It’s not a safe vaccine.”

Neculai Miron, mayor of the village of Bosanci, in Suceava County, has been outspoken about his stance against the vaccine — he doesn't think it's safe.

He doesn’t care about the medical records, nor does the local GP, to whom he showed the CNN team.

dr. Daniela Afadaroaie administers the vaccine to about 10 people with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine every other day. The latest official data shows that just under 11% of the village was vaccinated at the beginning of November 2021.

As she talked about the situation in the village, Mayor Miron hung around the doctor’s desk, peering at the papers on her desk to see who had been vaccinated.

‘When will you be vaccinated, Mr. Mayor?’ asked Afadaroaie, laughing.

“I don’t need to be vaccinated,” he retorted. “I’m perfectly healthy.” The doctor’s explanation that the vaccine helps you keep it that way fell on deaf ears.

Pastor: ‘I believe what I see, instead of what I hear’

In rural villages like this, poverty and lack of education, along with the personal influence of local leaders and traditional religious beliefs, can be a deadly combination.

But the local Pentecostal pastor, Dragos Croitoru, insisted he was unaware of any Covid-19 deaths in the parish. “Here in the church we have no cases of people being sick with coronavirus. We have a zero percent death rate, I don’t know anyone here in our parish who has died from coronavirus. And I believe what I see, rather than what I hear,” he said.

Despite hearing from CNN about the bodies of Covid-19 victims filling the morgue of Bucharest University Hospital, Croitoru was not convinced. “Bucharest is bigger than Bosanci, as far as I know,” he chuckled. ‘There have been no deaths. Maybe a few people in the village have been sick, yes, as far as I know, yes. But the death rate in our church has been zero.”

The death rate is certainly high elsewhere in this predominantly rural province. Suceava ranked third in Covid-19 death rates for the entire country in early November, according to figures from the Public Health Unit, which tracks deaths.

Freshly laid graves in the largest cemetery in Suceava, in northeast Romania, which has the country's third-highest Covid-19 death rate.

One corner of the main cemetery in Suceava, the provincial capital about 10 minutes from Bosanci, is lined with freshly dug graves. A service is underway in the cemetery chapel. On the hill behind the chapel, mourners gather for a funeral. Another grave is being prepared nearby.

The wooden crosses above each new grave do not indicate the cause of death, so it is unclear how many died from the virus. However, a man working on one of the graves said the number of people being buried lately was much higher than usual.

“Eternal Regret,” reads a ribbon draped over one of the graves.

Back at the morgue of Bucharest University Hospital, a doctor drove a nail into a wooden box. A colleague sprayed the box with disinfectant.

There will be no open casket funerals for those who die from Covid.

“The vaccine means the difference between life and death,” says Ionita, the nurse. “People should understand that. Maybe they should understand that in their last hour.”

For those swathed in the black body bags before him, it’s already too late.

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Rakesh

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