Wearing full protective gear including a white suit and plastic visor, Ukrainian doctor Marta Saiko checked on an elderly patient hooked up to a ventilator.
The country has seen a surge of new COVID-19 cases following the lifting of nationwide lockdown measures.
“We’re overloaded. Over the last 24 hours we’ve admitted 18 patients with suspected coronavirus,” said Saiko, head of primary care at Lviv Emergency Hospital.
“It’s like in a war, it’s very hard. All our staff are exhausted,” she said.
Saiko’s hospital, in one of the worst affected regions of Ukraine, is still treating ordinary emergency patients but for the first time since the pandemic began is also admitting suspected virus cases.
The hospital has created 50 beds for such patients and all were full within three days, she said. “Their medical state is moderately serious or bordering on serious. One patient has died.”
Nataliya Matolinets, head of the intensive care unit, said the hospital had begun treating coronavirus patients because the city needs more beds.
“Both the psychological and physical burden has grown significantly for the doctors and all the staff,” she said.
During the first wave of contagion earlier this year, the hospital admitted some patients who subsequently tested positive and infected medics, she said.
Now, unlike in the first weeks of the outbreak, doctors have enough protective equipment, she said, remaining upbeat.
“We’re stress-resistant and understand how much hope is pinned on us.”
The facade of the hospital has a mural showing a doctor in white protective gear and the word “Dyakuyu”, meaning thank you in Ukrainian.
In June, the World Health Organization listed Ukraine among two dozen European countries that have seen resurgences of the virus.
At the highest point on June 26, Ukraine had a daily increase of 1,109 cases as authorities warned they might have to re-impose lockdown measures.
The country has confirmed more than 49,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths.
Over the past two weeks the western Lviv region has reported more new infections than any other.
Nataliya Timko, a top epidemiologist at the Lviv regional health care department, told AFP that the region had expected to have more cases in the first wave but avoided this thanks to strict lockdown rules.
But now “some people have forgotten about the lockdown”, she lamented, saying the virus is spreading because some are ditching face masks and other protective measures.
Andriy Sadovyi, mayor of Lviv, a picturesque city of one million that is a major tourism destination, told AFP that the region had carried out more tests than any other, detecting more cases.
He urged residents to adhere to social distancing rules, stressing these were in place to prevent infections.
“You can’t have a coffee in a cafe in Lviv until they’ve taken your temperature and all the waiters wear masks,” Sadovyi said of the city famed for its cafe culture.
Ukraine eased its lockdown measures in late May and early June with the resumption of public transport and the reopening of parks, outdoor cafes and beauty salons.
The mayor praised the work of local medics.
“It is reassuring that the medical system is coping with the number of patients, and we have up to 40 percent (of virus beds) occupied,” Sadovyi said.
If the surge in cases continues, all the city’s hospitals will have to start treating coronavirus patients, he added, however.
He urged the government to fulfil its promise to pay all the doctors who treat COVID-19 patients a bonus of three times their monthly salary.
“It’s important to give them decent pay,” Sadovyi said.
He acknowledged that it is “psychologically difficult for the doctors to reorganise how they work” as hospitals have to hastily adapt their systems to treat virus patients.
The new caseload causes a lot of physical and emotional stress, agreed Timko.
“It is hard to work in protective suits; it’s hard to watch patients die.”