By Antonio Bronic and Ivana Sekularac
ZAGREB/BELGRADE (Reuters) - COVID-19 infections are rocketing across the Western Balkans with hospitals close to being overwhelming by incoming patients, prompting a race to build additional clinics with case numbers likely to peak in coming weeks.
Croatians queued up in hundreds of cars before the Zagreb Fair gate in the capital on Friday waiting to get a COVID-19 test, with new daily cases in the small European Union member country approaching 3,000.
Authorities reported 2,776 infections and 20 deaths in Croatia, a nation of 4 million people, over the past 24 hours, but epidemiologists warned numbers could rise to up to 4,000 a day in the coming weeks.
"We expect to see a peak in infections in two to three weeks," said Kresimir Lujetic, head of Croatia's Medical Chamber. He added that Zagreb hospital wards treating coronavirus patients had reached full capacity and that a sports hall will be turned into a makeshift hospital to take in more.
Neighbouring Slovenia, a country of 2 million which earlier this month reimposed a lockdown against the second wave of the global pandemic, reported 1,798 new cases on Friday and a new record of 23 deaths in a day.
To the south, Bosnia reported 1,449 new cases and 30 deaths on Friday with officials warning hospital capacities especially in the capital Sarajevo were almost full and the system could face collapse.
In North Macedonia, 862 new cases were reported on Thursday with hospitals also stretched to their limits. NATO sent 60 respirators to help its newest member cope with the crisis, and the government has made wearing face masks mandatory in public.
Dejan Dokic, professor at Skopje's university medical faculty, said the capital's high air pollution in winter months made its residents more vulnerable to respiratory diseases including COVID-19.
In Serbia, 1,384 new infections and 44 deaths were registered on Thursday, but officials, wary of further economic damage from the crisis, said new restrictions would not be introduced as yet.
The Belgrade government is financing the construction of two new hospitals with an overall capacity of 1,500 COVID-19 patients, with openings scheduled for December.
(Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Mark Heinrich)