For weeks, paramedic Dmitry Seryogin had warned about the lack of coronavirus testing and inadequate protective gear that he and his colleagues were given in the city of Oryol, about a four-hour drive south of Moscow. If a patient did not explicitly warn they had coronavirus, he said, teams handled likely infections in simple masks and gloves.
Then, the inevitable happened. Two of his colleagues fell ill with coronavirus, then five more, and now, Seryogin says, more than a dozen have contracted the virus. The regional governor has confirmed an outbreak at a medical station, saying staff had been quarantined and he had “set the goal of providing everyone with PPE. No matter where they are going, what kind of call”.
Seryogin, who continues to work, has few illusions of safety. “I know what kind of job I have. The question is not whether I’m afraid of falling ill, just when it’s going to happen,” he said.
Infections are growing rapidly in Russia, with the country posting more than 10,000 new cases of coronavirus for the past three days, giving it the highest rate of new infections in Europe.
Hotspots with hundreds of infected people have been discovered at far-flung oil and gas fields and regional hospitals. Moscow’s mayor has warned that as many as 2% of the capital’s residents may be infected, an estimated 250,000 people, which is roughly four times the official tally. Officially, 1,451 people have died of coronavirus in Russia, far fewer than in countries with similar confirmed cases, but the fatality rate is rising.
“The empty beds in the ICU don’t mean there are fewer people critically ill, these are lives that have been lost,” Maryana Lysenko, the head doctor for Moscow’s 52nd Hospital, said in a video address calling on Russians not to go out during this week’s May holidays.
Russian medical staff have been hit especially hard. One nurse in St Petersburg called it the “longest two months of my life”. She had moved out of her house, where she lives with her husband and son, and was staying with a colleague because she feared she could not avoid becoming infected at work and passing it on to her family. For a period last month, she and colleagues had been asked to source masks from home. “It’s painful for me to see doctors ready to do anything but without the support they need,” she said.
Hundreds of Russian healthcare workers have been quarantined alongside their patients, and St Petersburg authorities this week uncovered 111 infections among ambulance workers at a single hospital. In Moscow, medical school students have been mobilised, some telling the Moscow Times they had been coerced to fight the disease, in part to replace trained medical staff who have fallen ill.
Staff members at several high-profile hospitals have resigned in protest at poor working conditions. Paramedics and hospital staff in four cities contacted by the Guardian complained about a shortage of masks or having to reuse PPE.
“We’re seeing mass infections among medical workers,” said Andrei Konoval, the co-chairman of the independent medical workers’ union Deystviye, of which Seryogin is also a member. “From everything we have seen, hospitals seem to be one of the key vectors for the spread of the disease.”
Doctors have begun tallying their fallen colleagues because they believe that they are being overlooked. A “list of memory” has appeared online, which, as of Tuesday morning, listed the names of 97 doctors from Russia and four from neighbouring Belarus who had died with symptoms of the disease.
The unofficial statistics raise questions about how Russia is counting the numbers of its people who have died from the disease.
The Guardian this week collected reports of 150 deaths among health workers in the UK when the country had recorded more than 28,000 deaths from the disease. When Italy reported that 100 medical workers had died, the country’s death toll had just surpassed 18,200.
The Russian list has 97 names for just 1,451 coronavirus deaths, indicating that either Russian health workers are dying at higher rates or that the country’s total death toll due to coronavirus may be underreported, or both.
“We see that many of our colleagues are sick, many are dying,” one of the doctors behind the list told a Russian news website. “And there are no attempts to either count or find out in detail what is happening. That’s where the idea came from.”
Russia’s biggest cities have been worst hit by the virus. In St Petersburg, 11 doctors have died, including two nurses at a hospital for war veterans. Another doctor at the same hospital, Marianna Zamyatina, resigned last month after complaining about a lack of PPE and dangers from cross-contamination. Her husband had given her a welder’s mask to wear to work.
At Moscow’s coronavirus hospitals in Kommunarka, a nurse who quit over working conditions said she had been ridiculed for asking for a bonus promised to medical workers on TV by Vladimir Putin: “Putin promised it to you, let Putin personally pay it.”
The list has also revealed other regions with high death tolls. Nine health workers are listed as having died in Dagestan, a southern Russian region that has reported only 13 deaths from the disease.
Doctors in Dagestan, where local health workers have complained about conditions amid an “avalanche” of new infections, suspect the death toll may be far higher. A video leaked last month from a hospital in Derbent in Dagestan showed nurses being treated for coronavirus symptoms on shelves usually reserved for clean sheets.
Another doctor, Daniyal Alkhasov, said he began volunteering late last month at a hospital ICU in Khasavyurt, a city in Dagestan that local officials ordered quarantined on Monday.
Alkhasov was given a protective suit, he said, but there were no respirators and the PPE had “practically no effect”.
After just two shifts at the hospital, he fell ill with coronavirus.
“Nearly everyone there has already been sick or is sick now,” he said in an interview punctuated by heavy coughs. “It’s like a chain – some get sick, some get better, and some unfortunately have died.”
When he arrived for his first shift, Alkhasov said, a nurse from the gynaecology department was in the ICU with coronavirus.
“When I came back [for my second shift], she had died,” he said. “I didn’t see her on the list.”
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