SKOPJE, North Macedonia—North Macedonia’s government declared three days of mourning Thursday following a deadly overnight fire in a COVID-19 field hospital that killed 14 people and injured a dozen.
The blaze broke out late Wednesday in the western city of Tetovo, where the unit had been set up following a recent spike in infections in the region that left local hospitals full.
Health Minister Venko Filipce said the 14 dead ranged in age from 29 to 79. Forensics teams were working to identify them, and it was not yet clear whether all were COVID-19 patients or whether some visiting relatives might have been among them.
“We will run DNA tests on the victims which will confirm whether there were members of the families,” Filipce said.
“It is difficult to express in words the pain that I feel for the lost lives and the loss of their families,” he told a press conference Thursday evening.
Another 12 people were injured, and were transferred to the main hospital of Tetovo, where they were in stable condition, the minister said.
Addressing public pressure to resign in the wake of the blaze, Felipce said he would decide whether to do so after the investigation into the incident is completed.
The minister insisted that the 19 field hospitals set up across the country over the past year to deal with the pandemic were built to the specifications and standards laid out by the World Bank, which financed their construction through a loan.
”It is a tragedy that I can’t even explain,” said local resident Idriz Brahimi. “Those were sick people who couldn’t get out. It is a huge catastrophe.”
After an emergency meeting on the fire, the government ordered national flags to be lowered to half-staff for three days and all sports and cultural events and celebrations to be cancelled until Saturday.
The cause of the fire, which raced through the wooden paneled structure, was not immediately determined, although it was believed to have been an accident, potentially connected to the facility’s oxygen supply.
President Stevo Pendarovski said during a visit to Tetovo that the investigation would be completed within five days, and that the cause “was not deliberate arson.”
Five prosecutors from Tetovo and Skopje are working on the investigation. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a Facebook post overnight that the blaze followed an explosion at the site. There was speculation that the blast was linked to oxygen supplies.
“We saw the explosion and when we came here everything was in flames,” said local resident Nexhmedin Haliti. “Firefighters arrived and started to put the fire out, it lasted for 15-20 minutes. Everything burnt out.”
Fires in COVID-19 hospitals or wards have cost dozens of lives in other countries.
In July, a fire that swept through a COVID-19 ward in a hospital in Iraq’s Nasiriyah killed 92, and is believed to have been started either by a short-circuit or an oxygen cylinder explosion. In April, at least 82 people — many of them COVID-19 patients or their relatives — died in a fire at a Baghdad hospital that broke out when an oxygen tank exploded. Iraq’s health minister resigned over the disaster.
In Romania, two deadly hospital fires within a three-month period raised concerns about the country’s aging and overstretched healthcare system.
Last November, 10 died in a fire in an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients in the northern Romanian town of Piatra Neamt. Then in January, another blaze engulfed a ward at Bucharest’s Matei Bals hospital, killing five. Supplemental oxygen was present in both of the hospital wards.
In the aftermath of the Matei Bals fire, the hospital’s lawyer said that had a nurse not stopped the oxygen supply “we would have had an explosion.”
North Macedonia’s government said Thursday it was accepting the offer of NATO allies to send fire experts to help with the investigation. It was unclear which countries would be involved.
With less than 30% of the country’s roughly 2 million population fully vaccinated, North Macedonia has seen a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths since late August.
By Konstantin Testorides