By Octav Ganea and Luiza Ilie
PLOIESTI, Romania (Reuters) - As an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 fatalities engulfs Romania, funeral home owner Sebastian Cocos is struggling to source coffins and keep up with a faster pace of burials.
But for him, nothing brings home the scale of what is currently the world's deadliest epidemic more than the mourners who keep returning.
"There were families who buried up to four people in two weeks, and that is not easy," he told Reuters.
Based in the central city of Ploiesti, Cocos is also president of a national funeral home association.
With COVID-19 killing one person every five minutes on average this month in a country where the inoculation rate is worryingly low, he says activity both at his funeral home and across the industry has risen 50%.
And he has a stark message for the majority among his compatriots who remain unvaccinated.
"There is no comparison for ... what is going on now," said Cocos, who has been in the business for 12 years. "I recommend to everyone that they get vaccinated, otherwise they will end up in our hands."
'FORGETTING HOW TO EDUCATE'
Across the European Union, 74% of the adult population have been fully inoculated. In Romania that figure is 36%, the second lowest in the bloc after neighbouring Bulgaria, and for those over 80 it is just 20%.
Those numbers reflect a history of distrust in Romanian state institutions as well as underdeveloped rural infrastructure and weak vaccine education in the EU's second poorest nation.
Some public figures, including lawmakers, priests and some doctors, have urged people not to get vaccinated, supported protests against restrictions and even barged into hospitals - to the despair of health professionals.
"At the rate at which people refused to answer calls to get vaccinated, this fourth wave was predictable," said Andi Nodit, manager at Bucharest's Bagdasar-Arseni clinical emergency hospital.
The head of its emergency unit, Amalia Hangiu, described the situation there as "catastrophic, unimaginable."
On Tuesday, as Romania's coronavirus deaths hit a record high to top research portal Our World in Data's global ranking of new COVID-19 fatalities per million, the hospital system ran out of intensive care beds.
"Compared with previous waves, it is like a snowman versus an iceberg, the fourth wave is the iceberg," Nodit added.
"...The size and gravity of the situation in the emergency room and the hospital is beyond any words that I can express."
Roughly 13% of Romania's total of 42,000 epidemic-related deaths have occurred this month. On Tuesday, new daily infections topped 18,800 while 574 people died of the virus, both the most ever, official data showed.
President Klaus Iohannis is consulting officials and health experts on Wednesday with a view to introducing tougher curbs.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has sent a crisis expert to Bucharest, the EU has sent ventilators and some patients have been transferred to neighbouring Hungary, where the vaccination uptake rate is 66% and the COVID-19 death rate almost 20 times lower.
"We got here by losing sight of what it means to educate a nation," said Nodit.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Octav Ganea; editing by John Stonestreet)