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Official Numbers Still Low, But Russian System Feeling COVID’s Stress

The Russian EMS and hospital sectors are working at their limits amid the ever-growing number of patients with COVID-19 in the country and lack of safety measures at Russian hospitals, according to recent statements from local emergency doctors and healthcare analysts.

According to statistics published by the Russian Ministry of Health, the daily gain of patients with COVID-19 in Russia by early June varied in the range of 8,000–9,000 people. This was significantly higher than the figures of March and April, when no more than 100–300 infected patients were detected in the country.

As of June 26 the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center cited roughly 620,000 cases in Russia, with about 8,800 deaths. Some media sources believe the actual death toll is higher.   

Still, despite a high daily growth of new patients with COVID-19, the Russian government says the situation is manageable. This is mainly due to preparations for spread of the pandemic made in February and March, primarily in the form of building large hospitals in different parts of the country. These construction works were carried out with the participation of the Russian Ministry of Defense and were completed in just 2–3 months each.

Russia’s readiness for the pandemic was also emphasized by Dmitry Peskov, an official spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Russia managed to avoid the Italian scenario, where the virus initially flourished, as well as the humanitarian catastrophe seen in the United States. Peskov said that was mainly due to the tough decisions made quickly on self-isolation and a rapid increase in the country’s number of beds. While there are currently no shortages of beds for patients with COVID-19 in Russia, the threat of running out still exists.

The EMS Situation

In the meantime, despite the increased number of hospitals, the current situation in the Russian EMS sector remains complex, the main reason being a shortage of ambulance doctors.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of calls to EMS in Russia has significantly increased, and according to dispatchers, most callers are describing symptoms characteristic of COVID-19. And while the pandemic has not resulted in a massive outflow of paramedics from the EMS sector, many medical workers have still decided to retire.

At present the most complex situations are in St. Petersburg and especially the Moscow region, both of which have been hard hit by the pandemic. Some interviewed Moscow paramedics confirmed the shortage of personnel. Vyacheslav, a paramedic with one of the Moscow first aid teams (who asked not to mention his second name amid fears of possible investigations), reports at present most such emergency teams in Moscow consist of only a single doctor, although the existing standards also require the presence of at least two paramedics with each.

Due to the lack of ambulance teams, waiting times for some patients with COVID-19 in Russia have been as long as 24 hours. According to doctors, at present they are forced to prioritize emergency calls first: unconsciousness, arrhythmias, etc. Then come the urgent ones: high blood pressure, headache, etc.

The lack of emergency doctors was confirmed by Moscow Governor Andrew Vorobyov, who said authorities would incorporate medical students from universities to help first aid teams deal with COVID-19 patients.

“There was a shortage of personnel even prior to the pandemic,” Vorobyov said in an interview. “Somehow we’ve been able to deal with these challenges.” 

Still, since April the situation has significantly deteriorated, as despite a recent increase in salaries for paramedics, particularly those working with COVID patients (up to U.S. $1,100 a month, approved by Putin), many ambulance personnel are still not ready to assume huge risks due to the lack of the necessary safety measures. In addition, due to traditional Russian bureaucracy, many have not yet received their increased salary payments in full.

Protective Gear

Paramedics from Moscow ambulance teams have already sent a petition to the governor complaining about the lack of masks, suits, and other protective means. They report it has led to numerous infections with COVID-19 and the deaths of some of their colleagues. Doctors say they are often forced to use common disposable suits sold in construction stores instead of higher-grade medical protection.

The situation has improved some in recent weeks, they say, but their supplies are still insufficient to ensure their complete protection. There are reports of massive infection, although there are no official statistics in Russia regarding the number of doctors with COVID-19. Medical workers, including those from ambulance teams, are usually not included in such official data.

Russian media, however, occasionally report about COVID cases among Russian medical workers. For example, the TASS news agency recently reported about the infection of up to 100 ambulance doctors at the St. Petersburg Research Institute of Emergency Medicine.

Moscow medical authorities, however, consider these concerns exaggerated. Oleg Kakurin, chief physician of the Moscow Regional Emergency Medicine Station—the facility that coordinates the work of ambulance teams in Moscow—says, “All ambulance crews working with COVID-19 patients in Russia are currently provided with additional personal protective equipment—medical masks, special protective suits, shoe covers, gloves, antiseptic, and disinfectants.”

Eugene Gerden is an international freelance writer who specializes in coverage of the global firefighting, EMS, and rescue industries. He worked for several industry titles. Reach him at gerden.eug@gmail.com.

 

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