KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Truck driver Andriy Melnik never took the coronavirus seriously. With a friend, he bought a fake vaccination certificate so his travel documents would appear in order when he hauled cargo to other parts of Europe.
His view changed after the friend caught Covid-19 and ended up in an intensive care unit on a ventilator.
“It's not a tall tale. I see that this disease kills, and strong immunity wouldn't be enough -- only a vaccine can offer protection,” said Melnik, 42, as he waited in Kyiv to get his shot. “I'm really scared and I'm pleading with doctors to help me correct my mistake."
Ukraine is suffering through a surge in coronavirus infections, along with other parts of Eastern Europe and Russia. While vaccines are plentiful, there is a widespread reluctance to get them in many countries — though notable exceptions include the Baltic nations, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary.
The slow pace of vaccinations in Eastern Europe is rooted in several factors, including public distrust and past experience with other vaccines, said Catherine Smallwood, the World Health Organization's Europe Covid-19 incident manager.
“We’re seeing low vaccine uptake in a whole swath of countries across that part of the region,” she told The Associated Press. “Historical issues around vaccines come into play. In some countries, the whole vaccine issue is politicized."
Russia on Thursday recorded 1,159 deaths in 24 hours — its largest daily toll since the pandemic began — with only about a third of the country’s nearly 146 million people fully vaccinated. The Kremlin ordered a national nonworking period starting this week and lasting until Nov. 7.
An official in Hungary announced Thursday that private companies can require that employees get vaccinated to work, a measure that could boost in the nation's stagnant vaccination rate. Government employees, including teachers, will also be required to vaccinate, the official said.
Poland on Thursday reported the highest number of daily new infections since May at over 8,000.
In Ukraine, only 16% of the adult population is fully vaccinated — the second-lowest share in Europe after Armenia's rate of slightly over 7%.
Authorities in Ukraine are requiring teachers, government employees and other workers to get fully vaccinated by Nov. 8 or face a suspension in pay. In addition, proof of vaccination or a negative test is now needed to board planes, trains and long-distance buses.
This has created a booming black market in counterfeit documents. Fake vaccination certificates sell for the equivalent of $100-$300. There's even a phony version of the government's digital app, with bogus certificates already installed, said Mykhailo Fedorov, minister for digital transformation.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chaired a meeting on how to combat the counterfeits. Police suspect workers at 15 hospitals of being involved. They have opened 800 criminal cases into such fakes and deployed 100 mobile units to track down users, said Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky. They even caught a former lawmaker with one last week.
Ukraine's low vaccination rate has led to the rapid spread of Covid-19, putting new stress on the country's already overworked health care system.
The hospital surgical ward in the town of Biliaivka, near the Black Sea port of Odessa, is now treating only coronavirus patients, with 50 of its 52 beds filled. Drugs and oxygen are in short supply.
“We are on the verge of catastrophe, pushed by aggressive opponents of vaccination and the lack of funds,” said Dr. Serhiy Shvets, the head of the ward. “Regrettably, five workers in my ward have quit over the past week.”
The situation looks similar at a 120-bed hospital in the western city of Chernivtsi, where Dr. Olha Kobevko says she has 126 patients in grave condition.