North Macedonia’s health minister resigned late on Friday, nearly two days after a fire tore through a COVID-19 field hospital killing 12 patients and two visiting relatives.
Venko Filipce made the announcement shortly after his deputy minister and two senior hospital administrators also stepped down.
The majority of victims from the COVID hospital blaze in North Macedonia were patients, it emerged on Friday.
The fire broke out late on Wednesday in the western town of Tetovo, destroying the facility within a few minutes. A dozen people were also injured.
The blaze is believed to have started by accident, although an investigation is still underway. Witnesses and officials said an explosion preceded the fire.
According to the public prosecutor’s office, the dead were eight women and six men who ranged in age between 29 and 78.
The head of Tetovo’s COVID-19 centre, Gzim Nuredini, stated that the fire spread very quickly. He added that medical staff and patients’ relatives who were outside all tried to help extinguish the flames.
Prosecutors from Tetovo and the capital, Skopje, are gathering video material from inside and around the hospital, and have hired an electrical engineering expert to help determine how the blaze broke out.
Medical staff and witnesses have also been questioned, and prosecutors have ordered the confiscation of all documentation on the construction of the facility to check for potential omissions.
Fires in COVID-19 hospitals or wards have cost dozens of lives in other countries, including Iraq and Romania.
Nineteen field hospitals, funded by a World Bank loan, have been set up across North Macedonia over the past year to tackle surging coronavirus hospitalisations and a shortage of hospital beds. Health Minister Venko Filipce insisted that all 19 were constructed according to the specifications and standards laid out by the World Bank as a condition for the loan.
North Macedonia has accepted an offer from other NATO allies to send fire experts, with a team from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office set to join the investigation.
President Stevo Pendarovski has announced that the investigation would be completed within five days, and that indications are the fire was not set deliberately.
North Macedonia’s government has also declared three days of mourning from Thursday.
The country has been struggling with a wave of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Less than 30% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
The health ministry said the city of Tetovo suffered the highest number of hospitalisations and deaths during the latest virus wave.
Only 19% of the city’s residents were vaccinated in July, which health officials said caused great pressure on hospitals in August.
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