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Czechs send 30,000 police, soldiers to enforce travel limits

Police and military forces in the Czech Republic set up 500 checkpoints across the country as one of the European Union's hardest-hit nations marked the first anniversary of its coronavirus outbreak on Monday by significantly limiting free movement.

Some 30,000 officers were involved in an unprecedented operation to enforce a tight new restriction that bans people from traveling to other counties unless they go to work or have to take care of relatives.

It's part of a series of measures that took effect Monday as the Central European nation seeks to slow down the spread of a highly contagious virus variant first found in Britain.

A police officer stops a car on a road between the towns, Ostrava and Opava, near Dehylov, Czech Republic Monday, March 1, 2021. Limits for free movement of people are set in the Czech Republic. Travelling to other counties unless the go to work or have to take care about relatives is prohibited. (Jaroslav OzanaCTK via AP) ** SLOVAKIA OUT **

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the measure’s goal was to prevent the country's hospitals from collapsing under the stress of caring for COVID-19 patients.

Amid a surge of infections from the U.K. variant, of the 7,049 COVID-19 patients in Czech hospitals on Sunday, 1,507 needed intensive care. Both the numbers are close to the records set earlier last week.

Since the Czech Republic registered the first three people infected with coronavirus on March 1 last year, the nation of 10.7 million has see over 1.24 million confirmed cases with 20,469 deaths.

A healthcare worker prepares a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a sports hall in Ricany, Czech Republic, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. With new infections soaring due to a highly contagious coronavirus variant and hospitals filling up, one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union is facing inevitable: a tighter lockdown. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen from 70.75 new cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 14 to 109.82 per 100,000 people on Sunday, the worst per-capita rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As of Monday, people in the Czech Republic who go out for exercise should not leave their municipality. Nursery schools and schools for children with disabilities were also closed while only stores selling essential goods remain open.

Experts, however, say the measures don’t go far enough to stop the virus.

Elderly residents sit and wait after receiving Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a sports hall in Ricany, Czech Republic, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. With new infections soaring due to a highly contagious coronavirus variant and hospitals filling up, one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union is facing inevitable: a tighter lockdown. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)

“I consider the most important measures those that haven’t been applied,” biochemist Jan Trnka told the Czech Public radio. “That is to limit contacts at work, especially in the industry.”

Only on Monday did the Czech government start to require mass testing of employees on a voluntary basis. That was expected to become mandatory Friday in companies with more than 250 workers.

Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlicek has rejected calls to close at least some plants and factories as “unrealistic.”

Elderly men receive Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a sports hall in Ricany, Czech Republic, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. With new infections soaring due to a highly contagious coronavirus variant and hospitals filling up, one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union is facing inevitable: a tighter lockdown. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)

Meanwhile, the country is speeding up its vaccination program with general practitioners joining inoculation centers. Over 650,000 vaccine doses have been given out. Babis said 1 million vaccine shots were expected to arrive through an EU program in March and another 2.6 million in April.

In a sign of solidarity, three states in neighboring Germany have sent the Czech Republic 15,000 dozes of the AstraZeneca vaccine to try to control contagion at the border.

Babis and pro-Russian President Milos Zeman also said they would use Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine even if it’s not approved by the European Medicines Agency.

An elderly woman receives Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a sports hall in Ricany, Czech Republic, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. With new infections soaring due to a highly contagious coronavirus variant and hospitals filling up, one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union is facing inevitable: a tighter lockdown. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon for now its plans to reopen all stores. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)

A man wearing a face mask walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The Czech government is barring the citizens and residents from travelling to the countries hit by highly contagious coronavirus variants and is tightening the rules for face coverings. Starting on Thursday, the Czechs are required to wear better masks in places where large numbers gather, including stores, hospitals and public transportation. (AP PhotoPetr David Josek)