By Jiri Skacel
OSTRAVA, Czech Republic, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Staff at the crematorium in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava are working around the clock to cope with the number of bodies they have taken in during December, a sign of the surging number of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths across the country.
Many hospitals were also nearing capacity, officials said on Friday, as the Czech Republic, with a population of 10.7 million people, remains one of the worst-hit nations globally with 12,800 deaths and 809,601 identified cases.
The Ostrava crematorium received 1,570 bodies in December, more than 50% above normal levels.
It installed two container freezers outside and operated through the night even during the Christmas holidays and on New Year's Eve, director Ivo Formancik said, but was still unable to keep up.
"Ostrava crematorium is the only one located in the Moravskoslezsky region and provides these services to about one million inhabitants," he told Reuters.
"The total number of remains transported for cremation is now higher than the capacity of the cremation ovens."
The Interior Ministry said crematoriums in half of the country's 14 regions were at or near capacity, and Formancik said they would have to share the burden and that a plan for redistributing some bodies was being prepared.
The situation in hospitals was little better.
Health Minister Jan Blatny called on the public to observe limits on social interactions to help break the trend in the coming days, with the aid of stricter social distancing rules and the closure of most shops that came into force on Dec. 27.
Director Jiri Havrlant of the Ostrava University Hospital said it had over 190 COVID-19 patients and could take in over 50 more, but other hospitals were worse off.
"The situation in our region is epidemiologically serious; capacities at other hospitals have been roughly filled up," he said.
The Health Ministry reported around 140 deaths related to COVID-19 per day in the week to Jan. 6, compared with 337 daily deaths from all causes in the first week of an average year.
The ministry said on Friday that high hospital admissions could bring the total number of COVID-19 patients from Thursday's 7,300 to over 11,700 on Jan. 15, far above previous peaks of around 8,000.
"The capacity of beds is nearing the limit, and the possibilities to raise it are very limited," Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Cerny told a news conference.
"The main problem is lack of personnel."
Medical staff shortages mean the government was not planning to open two field hospitals that had been on standby, minister Blatny told reporters. (Reporting by Jiri Skacel and Jan Lopatka; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mike Collett-White)
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