UPDATE 1-Czechs to wait two weeks before considering COVID lockdown

* Surge in COVID-19 cases nears 100,000 in October alone

* Czechs have worst infection rate in Europe

* Deaths have doubled in October, hospitals seeing strain

* Government has tightened measures, aiming to avoid lockdown (Adds protest details, interior minister comment, EU request)

PRAGUE, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The Czech Republic, which has the highest coronavirus infection rate in Europe, will wait at least two weeks before deciding whether to order a full lockdown to stem its epidemic, Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlicek said on Sunday.

In the past week, bars and restaurants have been ordered to close except for takeout orders, and schools have moved to distance learning. Sport and fitness clubs, theaters and cinemas had already shut, but shops have remained open.

On Saturday, the Czech Republic reported 8,713 new cases. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said it had registered 828 cases per 100,000 population in the last two weeks, more than 10 times the rate in neighboring Germany.

Since schools reopened in September, the cumulative number of cases has risen almost seven times.

Officials have warned that hospital admissions are set to rise sharply until the restrictions show an impact.

"We will not decide this week about a lockdown," Havlicek said on Czech Television. "We have clearly said we will wait (until Nov. 2) for results."

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said on CNN Prima's Sunday show the new measures should cut the R number, which measures average spread from one infected person, by 30-40%. A number above 1.0 indicates an exponential increase, and the current rate is estimated at around 1.4.

If the latest restrictions are not effective enough, he said there were few options other a lockdown.

The growth in cases, with almost 100,000 this month in a country of 10.7 million, and 1,352 deaths overall from COVID-19, is forcing authorities to make plans for field hospitals and seek foreign help.

The Czech Fire Rescue Service said it had sent a formal request through European Union channels for ventilators.

In Prague, more than 500 sports fans, including militant soccer supporters' groups known as ultras, protested against the coronavirus measures, defying restrictions on gatherings.

Police used water cannon and tear gas and local media saisd there had been some injuries. (Reporting by Jason Hovet; Additional reporting by David W. Cerny; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

10/18/2020 15:20

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