“If it were not for Silesia,” a spokesman for Poland's health ministry said earlier this month, “we would have 32 [new cases of coronavirus] this morning.”
In fact, Poland reported 202 new infections that morning, June 1, as outbreaks in Silesia, a coal-mining region in the south of the country, hampers the government's efforts to tame Covid-19.
Like most of central Europe, Poland reacted quickly to the pandemic, closing its borders, shutting non-essential businesses, and banning large gatherings. As a result, it has suffered far fewer deaths (1,155) and cases (26,249) than many countries in western and southern Europe. Doctors have not had to face the agonising choices about which patients to treat which confronted some of their counterparts in Spain and Italy.
But whereas Slovakia, Austria and Hungary have had a sharp drop-off in infections, new cases in Poland remain stubbornly elevated. The problems in Silesia’s mines echo the situation in South Africa, where the world’s deepest mine was also forced to close following an outbreak.
For the past six weeks, Poland has recorded roughly 300-400 new infections a day. And more than 50 per cent of these have come from Silesia, which accounts for just 12 per cent of the population.
“Instead of decreasing the epidemic curve, we've got a sort of plateau,” said Maria Ganczak, a specialist in epidemiology at the University of Zielona Gora, in western Poland.
“What is striking is that we have the same pattern of a plateau as Sweden . . . The numbers [of cases in Sweden] are higher per million inhabitants, but the pattern is the same, so of course this worries me.”
Silesia is the heartland of Poland’s coal industry, and in recent weeks, the narrow mine shafts beneath the rolling countryside around Katowice have become one of the main incubators of the virus. More than 4,000 staff at mines in the region have tested positive.
“The conditions in the mines have proved very favourable for spreading the virus,” said Grzegorz Hudzik, from the Silesian health inspectorate. “There is very close contact between people. It's hard to keep distance between workers. The working conditions in the mines — the humidity and temperature — also help it spread.”
The situation has been compounded by the region’s population density which, at 368 people per square kilometre, is the highest in the country.
But Prof Ganczak said that a lack of local laboratory capacity in the early days of the pandemic, because of which tests had to be sent elsewhere in Poland for analysis, had also played a role.
“This caused severe delays in getting results, and of course every single hour is crucial at the beginning of an outbreak,” she said. Poland’s testing levels were still among the lowest in the EU. she added.
Fortunately, most cases of Covid-19 in Silesia have not been serious.
“So far we've had 225 deaths reported in Silesia, but this is not excessive, it's not an outlier. In proportion to the population, the number of deaths per million is similar to those in [other regions such as] Mazowieckie, Opolskie and Wielkopolskie,” said Piotr Zakowiecki, a health analyst at Polityka Insight.
Epidemiologists say this is probably because the majority of miners are young men in their 20s and 30s, who are less likely to develop serious complications than older people.
Although extensive workplace testing set up in recent weeks has helped to identify outbreaks among miners, scientists worry the virus could spread to their older relatives and more vulnerable members of the community.
“These local outbreaks are potentially dangerous because they can leak, and also cause transmission ‘on the streets’, so to speak,” said Rafal Halik, from Poland’s National Institute of Public Health. “It seems that there will [continue to] be these local outbreaks and it will be hard to bend this curve.”
The government last week set out plans to further loosen lockdown restrictions. Health minister Lukasz Szumowski said the relaxation was possible because 80 per cent of hospital beds set aside for coronavirus patients and 90 per cent of ventilators were unused.
However, Prof Ganczak said the reopening should be slower. Plans to allow fans back into football stadiums and up to 150 guests at weddings, in particular, were courting trouble.
“We don’t yet have control of the epidemic,” she said. “My concern is that . . . we will still have these outbreaks. But hopefully they will be detected sooner than in Silesia, and they will be managed better.”
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