The escalation of Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities, could prolong the pandemic, U.N. agencies warned Sunday.
“Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has already put health systems and health care workers under enormous strain, such attacks have the potential to be even more devastating for the civilian population,” reads a joint statement issued by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the United Nations Population Fund.
The statement cited 31 attacks that destroyed or damaged health care facilities since the beginning of the Russian invasion, curtailing Ukrainians’ access to services, including vaccinations against COVID-19.
“Humanitarian partners and health care workers must be able to safely maintain and strengthen essential health service delivery, including immunization against COVID-19 and polio, and the supply of life-saving medicines for civilians across Ukraine as well as to refugees crossing into neighbouring countries,” the statement says.
Vaccination rates in Ukraine were low, even before the invasion. Only about 35.7% of the population had received two COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Feb. 23, according to Reuters. Daily cases peaked at 41,694 on Feb. 10 and have been decreasing since, although the war has impacted access to testing. Ukraine has reported 106,985 COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic.
Ukrainian health care workers have been told to take note of patients’ symptoms, instead of seeking COVID tests, Dr. Oleksandr Matskov, deputy director of the General Public Health Center of Ukraine, told The New York Times.
The war has upended life across the country and has eclipsed COVID concerns for many everyday Ukrainians.
“People are not frightened about COVID anymore,” Dr. Marta Saiko, head of the therapy department at the Clinical Municipal Emergency Hospital in Lviv, told The New York Times. “People are frightened of the war.”
Over 2.8 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion, according to U.N. data last updated on Sunday. Most have sought refuge in Poland, where border staff have not been requesting vaccination certificates or COVID-19 tests, according to Euronews.
Typically, travelers from outside the E.U. are required to show a negative COVID-19 test result and proof of vaccination or recovery certificate to avoid quarantine, according to the Polish government’s website.
Jean-Claude Cordeau, head of the Urban Search and Rescue mission in the Polish village of Medyka, looks after refugees making the crossing from Ukraine, including small children arriving with hypothermia.
“COVID at this border crossing here in Medyka is obviously not a priority,” Cordeau told Euronews. “Not a priority for us, and not a priority for refugees that are arriving.”
Still, WHO’s Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove warned the pandemic is not over and said the chaos in Ukraine is a breeding ground for infectious diseases.
“Certainly, this pandemic is not taking a break, despite the fact that we have this war, despite the fact that we have challenges and many countries are facing challenges right now,” Van Kerkhove said during a WHO press briefing on Wednesday.
The BA.2 variant, also known as “stealth omicron,” has driven China’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said Sunday an additional booster shot is necessary to prevent future infections.