Despite Minister of Health Armend Zemaj insisting that there was ‘no chance’ anyone unauthorized could access the Infectious Disease Clinic, a BIRN camera crew was able to enter with ease amid patients sick with COVID-19, discovering rooms full of visitors.
On Tuesday evening, BIRN Kosovo Director Jeta Xharra and a camera crew visited the Infectious Disease Clinic in Prishtina, where dozens of COVID-19 patients are being treated, to see if it was possible to gain access.
In an interview with BIRN on November 16, Minister of Health Armend Zemaj stated that there was “no chance” that anyone that had not tested positive for COVID-19 could enter the Clinic. The minister added that the Kosovo Police had been deployed and were operating a zero tolerance policy regarding entry.
However, Xharra and the camera crew, none of whom had authorisation, encountered no police and were easily able to enter multiple clinics treating patients with COVID-19 at the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo, including the Infectious Disease Clinic, where there were no security guards stationed outside.
There, BIRN discovered many rooms filled with visitors, some of whom told BIRN that they had not tested positive for the coronavirus. Some rooms even contained relatives asleep next to the patients.
Many of the visitors stated that they felt safer monitoring their relatives’ condition themselves as the clinics were understaffed. A nurse interviewed by Xharra stated that two nurses were on shift at the Infectious Disease Clinic, with a third assessing test results.
The nurse said that family members regularly visit the Clinic, despite not being permitted, adding that it was the security guards’ responsibility to prevent them from accessing the building downstairs. BIRN also witnessed nurses together with family members in patients’ rooms.
Asked why the BIRN crew found it so easy to access the Infectious Disease Clinic, a security guard stated that his colleague assumed that the crew were “visitors,” arguing that family members needed to bring food and medicine to patients and that security “cannot stop them.” However, he refuted the idea that people stayed overnight, claiming that no one stayed “unnecessarily.”
The security guard refused to answer questions about why more was not being done to ensure that uninfected people were kept out of the Clinic, but insisted that the security team were doing “a good job.”
At the Internal Disease Clinic, where COVID-19 patients are also being treated, one security guard denied BIRN access without permission. However another security guard provided directions, stating that the COVID-19 patients were located “upstairs.”
After accessing the area where COVID-19 patients were being treated at the Clinic, BIRN met a patient’s family member who admitted that he was not infected.
“I’m negative,” he said, adding that he stayed with the patient as he was concerned about the overworked staff. “They work for 12 hours or more. There are two nurses for 15 or 20 patients! I hope God will help us.”
The visitor said he felt that the Kosovo authorities were perhaps unaware of the situation in the wards. “This is very bad for the Minister, but maybe they know what they are doing… It’s really bad, maybe they should visit more often.”
The same security guard that directed the BIRN camera crew to the COVID-19 patients eventually came to request that filming be stopped, but refused to answer questions about why he failed to prevent us from accessing the Clinic earlier. BIRN then attempted to enter the Sports Medicine Clinic, which also houses COVID-19 patients, but was denied access without authorisation by a security guard.
BIRN has received a number of reports from citizens that hundreds of people were often visiting clinics where COVID-19 patients were being treated. However, when we put these reports to Minister Zemaj, he completely refuted the allegations.
Responding to the proposition that there were people that had not tested positive for COVID-19 entering the Infectious Disease Clinic, Zemaj said: “No, there is no chance that happens, no way. The management of the Infectious Disease Clinic does not allow this.”
The minister also suggested that the reports may be tendentious or made out of spite, claiming that BIRN had failed to fact check them.
However, the ease with which BIRN accessed multiple clinics containing COVID-19 patients on Tuesday only bolsters the validity of these reports and raises serious questions about efforts made by Kosovo’s institutions to contain the coronavirus.