SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria reported 3,502 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, its highest daily tally in three months, prompting some regions to again tighten measures to tame the third wave of the pandemic.
The government’s response to the crisis, and what opponents say is a slow and often chaotic rollout of vaccinations, is set to be a major issue in next month’s parliamentary election.
Local health authorities in Sofia, home to 2 million of the Balkan country’s 7 million people, said secondary school students should study online from March 12 for two weeks, while restaurants and bars should close at 10 p.m..
Shopping malls and gyms in the capital remain open for now but will be shut if infections continue to surge.
Similar measures were introduced in the regions of Pleven, Blagoevgrad, Yambol and Vratsa, with at least four others set to decide on Thursday whether to follow.
“It is very worrying that the new variants of the coronavirus are much more contagious and many young people get infected,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told a government meeting in support of the locally imposed restrictions.
On Wednesday, the total number of Bulgarians to have been infected reached 266,805, including 10,902 who have died. Non-urgent surgeries have been halted after the number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients jumped to more than 6,000.
The country reopened schools and shopping malls in February and restaurants and bars in March, hoping that social distancing and mask-wearing would help it avoid a spike in new cases.
Bulgarians are divided over the centre-right government’s handling of the pandemic, with 46% taking a favourable view, mainly due to the lack of tougher restrictions, a survey by pollster Gallup International showed.
Some 42% of Bulgarians say the government is not doing a good job, the survey showed.
Just 3% of the adult population has been vaccinated since the first shots were given in December, the lowest of any European Union country except Latvia.
The centre-right government has been criticised by opposition politicians for the lack of a strong information campaign encouraging people to have the anti-COVID shots.
On Wednesday, Borissov pledged to have all vulnerable groups inoculated within a month.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, Editing by Louise Heavens and Catherine Evans)