BUCHAREST -- As he lay dying of COVID-19 in an intensive-care unit in central Romania, a young man told medics his vaccine certificate was false.
He wasn't the first person to admit to medics at the Sibiu Emergency Hospital that he'd obtained a fictitious certificate, but he was the youngest. Sadly, it was too late, and he died.
"We have patients who are hospitalized and asking us for vaccines," unit manager Ioana Codru told Agerpres on October 5.
"We tell them that, once they are in intensive care, there's no preventive measure that can be taken."
With both Romania and neighboring Bulgaria facing a spike in coronavirus cases, the challenge of treating the influx of newly sick patients is being complicated by the prevalence of fake vaccine certificates. Easy to get and hard to trace, they are symptomatic of endemic corruption in the two poorest EU member states -- and indicative of the widespread distrust toward coronavirus vaccines.
Speaking on October 6, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said the situation concerning the pandemic was "a catastrophe." There were a record 16,777 new infections on October 12 in Romania and 442 deaths, another all-time negative high.
In data from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization, on October 11, Romania saw 1.45 deaths per 100,000 people and Bulgaria 1.23. The European Union average for that day was 0.13 deaths. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Bulgaria has the lowest rate of coronavirus vaccination in the EU, with 23.5 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Romania has the second lowest rate, with only 34.1 percent of the country's population being fully vaccinated.
The recent spike in coronavirus cases has helped expose the shadowy practice of obtaining fake vaccination certificates. Cristian Oancea, the manager of the Victor Babes Hospital of Infectious Diseases in Timisoara, a city in western Romania, was one of the first doctors to publicly speak out about the forgery in August.
"We have doubts [about whether someone is actually vaccinated] when we see young patients with very severe forms of the disease," he said.
As doctors treat severely ill patients in Romania's overstretched intensive-care units, they are pleading with people to own up. "We encourage patients to be straightforward and honest with medical staff and provide correct information to establish a diagnosis and give the right treatment," Decebal Todarita, a spokesman at the Sibiu Emergency Hospital, said.
People with fake vaccination certificates are already registered in the system as being fully vaccinated. To receive a vaccination "officially," they would have to wait until they become eligible for a third booster shot -- even though, in reality, that would be their first.
A former Romanian health minister, Ioana Mihaila, said in late August that the ministry had received reports from doctors "that more and more patients who appear to be vaccinated and have moderate to severe forms of the virus admit that they are unvaccinated."
Daniela Mitrea, a family doctor, was detained for 24 hours in September on suspicion of forging COVID-19 vaccination certificates for 10 players from the Pucioasa soccer club. Her husband, Cristian Mitrea, the chairman of the team in the small town 100 kilometers northwest of Bucharest, is also under investigation.
Police said Mitrea, who is also deputy chairman of the local county's Family Doctors' Association, is suspected of throwing away vaccine doses and giving the players certificates so they could participate in competitions. The practice is informally known as "vaccine down the sink" in Romania, referring to the fact that the dose is thrown away rather than injected. Mitrea, who denies wrongdoing, then allegedly claimed money from health authorities.
In Bulgaria, the country's chief sanitary health inspector, Angel Kunchev, said that the fake vaccine certificate trade is widespread. According to Siika Mileva, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general, Bulgarian prosecutors and other officials are investigating 14 such cases. She said that the allegations have come from seven districts, mostly in the capital, Sofia. "We will be uncompromising," she said.
Kunchev said that one case stood out: a doctor with a practice in central Bulgaria. "We were impressed that in addition to the high number of vaccines [administered], this doctor had given vaccines to people all over Bulgaria. There are patients from Elhovo (southeast Bulgaria) and Varna (eastern Bulgaria.)"
Have Certificate, Will Travel
But as the practice is increasingly being exposed and coronavirus cases are spiking, many people are now regretting buying the fake certificates.
Maria and Ivan (not their real names) from Sofia told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that they paid 600 lev ($354) to obtain the certificates in the spring. They said they needed the passes to travel to Greece and France this summer.
Across the EU, once vaccinated, people receive a certificate with a QR code from an official website. They can carry a hard copy of the certificate or load the document onto various EU-approved apps. The certificate can then be checked across the bloc in restaurants, movie theaters, and used for travel abroad.
Maria and Ivan both said they caught COVID-19 in the winter of 2020, just before the vaccine drive started. Their family doctor told them to "wait because we now have a lot of antibodies and there is no point in rushing," Ivan said.
In May, they said, they decided to buy fake certificates after media reports about the possible side effects from the vaccines. "First there were problems with AstraZeneca, then I started reading about problems with Pfizer, and so in May, when we knew what our summer plans were, we decided to buy certificates," Maria said.
It took them 24 hours to obtain the documents, which showed that they'd received two doses of Pfizer. They contacted an acquaintance and went to a hospital in Sofia at the end of the working day. "We were initially told the price was 400 lev ($236), but when they found out that we were a family, they even gave us a discount and we paid 600 lev," Ivan added. On Bulgarian social media, fake vaccination certificates are advertised for as little as 200 lev.
Maria said that no one asked her why she didn't want to be vaccinated. "I explained: we have antibodies and we are afraid of the side effects of vaccines. There was no response," she said.
In Romania, on the Telegram messaging app, a "CERTIFICAT_COVID19" group with 600 members promises a vaccine pass without actually getting a shot and directs users to another account called E_Vaccin.
A reporter for Romania's Digi24 TV joined the Telegram group and was offered a fake vaccine certificate for 100 euros ($115). The reporter was promised a document with a QR code saying they had received Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine at the Grigore Alexandru Hospital in Bucharest, even though Romania's oldest children's hospital does not have a vaccine center.
Lucian Bode, Romania's interior minister, said on August 30 that police are investigating that case and another 400 separate cases of vaccine forgery. But despite the police investigations, authorities in Bulgaria and Romania are finding it hard to clamp down on the forgery trade.
Bulgarian sanitary inspector Kunchev said that the Health Ministry and regional health authorities have filed reports on doctors allegedly involved in trading illegal vaccine documents, but it's hard to get concrete evidence.
Kunchev told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that it was difficult to prove which medics provided them and the law on who was responsible for issuing the certificates was also unclear.
Maria Sharkova, a medical law expert in Bulgaria, said the legislation is ambiguous and doesn't specify who is responsible for entering data into the electronic system. That makes it difficult to punish potential wrongdoers. She said the problem could be fixed if regulations were clarified to iron out the confusion.
Romanian law enforcement appears to be fighting a losing battle against the scammers, with many people being defrauded and losing money.
"They create apps with names such as 'vaccine,' 'COVID,' 'certificate,' 'vaccine passports,' 'vaccine cards,' etc. and post announcements they are selling COVID-19 certificates," a police statement said on October 6.
Victims hand over their details and are asked to pay about 100 euros for a vaccine certificate. The sellers ask for payment in bitcoin or through PayPal.
"In order to convince the client to pay, the vendor sends a photo of the certificate and a tracking number generated by the courier company, saying that if the payment isn't made in a short time, the transaction will be cancelled," the statement said.
'Don't Get The Vaccine, It Will Kill You'
Experts say that the high rate of vaccine refusal and vaccine hesitancy in both countries is fueled by a distrust of the authorities and disinformation on the Internet and social media. But the problem is compounded by some medical personnel who are opposed to coronavirus vaccines.
A seamstress from Bucharest, 57, who asked not to be named, said that she accompanied her partner, who was recovering from the coronavirus in April, to an appointment with a pulmonologist at a public hospital. According to the woman, the medic told the pair: "Don't get the vaccine, it will kill you." When she said she had already been vaccinated, the doctor said: "You'll be dead in three months."
As the caseload increases -- along with the number of dead -- more and more people in Bulgaria and Romania are coming to regret not getting vaccinated, and sometimes their decision to obtain a fake certificate.
Dorel Sandesc, deputy chairman of the Romanian Association of Intensive Care, said on October 5 it was "hell" in overrun intensive-care units.
"There are patients who regret not having a shot," he said. "There are too many of them who we see on a daily basis. They are desperate and it's much too late," he told Digi24.
With the recent spike in cases, there has been an increase in vaccine demand in Romania. On October 8, according to covidvax.live, some 67,415 people got shots. A month earlier, on September 8, that figure was 9,475.
With many people wishing they had been vaccinated, some are turning their regret and guilt into something more positive.
Businessman Erno Kovacs was a vocal anti-vaxxer who promoted and publicized anti-mask protests. But the keep-fit fanatic from the Transylvanian city of Zalau caught the virus in late September. He was hospitalized and needed oxygen therapy and is now urging people to get vaccines.
"I am sorry I was against COVID and the vaccine. I will promote the vaccine. The doctors are heroes…. I apologize I didn't trust them," he wrote in a post shared by the Ro Vaccinare, the government's coronavirus platform.
As for the Bulgarian couple, they are hoping to get a third dose when it is allowed.
"On paper, we'll have three shots, but actually it's only one. And one is better than nothing," Maria said.
"We just cheated and acted pretty stupidly. We did it out of fear and a little arrogance."