By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland has become the latest European nation to reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths related to the coronavirus.

Nearly a quarter of those deaths — some 24,000 — occurred in the most recent wave of infection that began in October, a period in which vaccines have been widely available in the European Union nation.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said Tuesday that 493 deaths of people with COVID-19 had been registered in the past day, pushing the death toll to 100,254 in the central European nation of 38 million people.

The bleak marker comes as the number of new infections has recently fallen following a peak in what officials call the country’s “fourth wave” of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant, but as the omicron variant is spreading and another large infection wave is looming.

The first two deaths from omicron were reported Monday, both of them in elderly and unvaccinated people.

Niedzielski said there are now 18,000 hospitalizations, making this “the most difficult situation compared to other waves.”

Poland has struggled through the pandemic with a health care sector strapped by limited funding and the emigration of many medical professionals to Western Europe in past years.

According to OECD statistics, Poland is the EU nation with the lowest number of working doctors in proportion to its population — just 2.4 to 1,000 inhabitants compared with 4.5 in Germany. Poland also has only 5 nurses to 1,000 inhabitants, below the EU average of 8 and far below richer countries like Germany, which has 14.

The vast majority of the deaths in the last wave — 83% — are of the unvaccinated. Among younger people, those below 44, more than 90% of those who died were not vaccinated.

The vaccination rate in Poland is 55.8% — a much lower rate of vaccination than in the countries of western Europe but much higher than in some other central European countries, like Bulgaria and Romania.

The government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has sought to encourage vaccinations but is also up against fears and hesitancy among some in the population — and sometimes among the governing Law and Justice party’s own supporters.

In recent days, a school superintendent and party loyalist in the province surrounding Krakow, Barbara Nowak, said she opposed making vaccines compulsory for teachers, an idea supported by Niedzielski, the health minister. She claimed that “the consequences of this experiment are not fully established.”

Her words were sharply criticized by the health and education ministers and medical professionals, but the education minister has refused calls for her dismissal.

Poland now joins Italy, the U.K, France and Germany as those European nations that have recorded 100,000 deaths.

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