Greece imposes lockdown to avoid worst at hospitals

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A medical staff member from the National Health Organization (EODY) conducts a rapid COVID test on a man, wearing a face mask with the Greek flag, in Athens, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced a nationwide three-week lockdown starting Saturday morning, saying that the increase in the coronavirus infections must be stopped before Greece's health care system comes under "unbearable" pressure. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS – With a surge in coronavirus cases straining health systems in many European countries, Greece announced a nationwide lockdown Thursday in the hopes of stemming a rising tide of patients before its hospitals come under “unbearable” pressure.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that he acted before infection rates reached the levels seen in many neighboring countries because, after years of financial crises that have damaged its health system, it couldn't afford to wait as long to impose restrictions as others had.

“We must stop this wave,” Mitsotakis said. “I chose once again to take drastic measures sooner rather than later.”

Before the outbreak, Greece had one of the lowest rates of intensive-care beds per capita in Europe. It has since doubled the number to 1,013. But, of the 348 beds dedicated to coronavirus cases, only 128 remain unoccupied.

It's unlikely that number would've been enough to cope with what Mitsotakis said could be 1,000 new hospital admissions over the next 10 days, of which about 150 would likely have required ICU treatment.

On Wednesday, Greece announced a record 18 daily deaths and 2,646 new cases bringing the total confirmed cases to just under 47,000 and deaths to 673 in this country of nearly 11 million. Greece's rolling average of daily new cases is just over 17 per 100,000 people, as compared to 33 in the United Kingdom, about 47 in Italy and 68 in France. But the prime minister warned Greece also had less margin to respond.

Countries across Europe have imposed tighter restrictions in recent days, but some experts felt those measures were too slow in coming.

Britain's own lockdown kicked in Thursday, shuttering restaurants, hairdressers and clothing stores until at least Dec. 2. The lockdown decision was an about-face for the government, which had earlier advocated a targeted regional response to the pandemic.