Masked Santa lifts spirits for Romanian COVID-19 patients

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian nurse Ionut Ivan has spent the last nine months caring for so many coronavirus patients he has lost count.

But that has not dimmed his enthusiasm for bringing some festive cheer, dressing up as Santa Claus and distributing fruit and sweets to the almost 100 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalised at the Marius Nasta institute in Bucharest.

His protective suit is red and a fake white beard made of wadding is taped to the edges of his mask and gown. He wears a Santa cap held in place by his face shield.

“Ho ho ho, Santa has come bearing gifts, though in this place I wish you health,” he tells Gheorghe Iulian Butca, a 63-year-old patient in the intensive care unit above the machine noise. “It’s good to see you.”

The European Union state has reported 604,251 coronavirus cases since February and 14,766 deaths and the pandemic has brought Romania’s underdeveloped healthcare system into focus.

“We are at maximum capacity,” the institute’s manager Beatrice Mahler said. “We exceed the allotted number of COVID-19 beds daily, a situation we have been facing for more than a month.”

Mahler said Santa Claus visits the hospital’s children wing every year, but that in 2020 he expanded to adults because “he needs to offer a spark of hope and joy to COVID-19 patients”.

Brindusa Gheorghiu, a 45-year-old veterinarian in intensive care for almost a week, said her Christmas wish was to get better and return to her husband and child. But for now she was making do with the good cheer of nurse Ivan.

“We are fighting to live and we are feeling better with him here,” she said.

Reporting by Octav Ganea and Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alison Williams