Coronavirus: Russia resists lockdown and pins hopes on vaccine

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By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

Media signatureThis ice rink is one of five makeshift hospitals in Moscow *: not ([hidden]): not (style) ~ *: not ([hidden]): not (style) {margin-top: 1rem;}]]>

The ticket counters at the Krylatskoye Ice Palace are closed, but the ice rink is full: not with speed skaters and hockey players, but rows of coronavirus patients.

It is one of five facilities in Moscow that have been converted into giant makeshift hospitals and are now taking action as the number of new Covid cases hits record highs every day.

Describing the infection rate as “worrying” – the Kremlin announced almost 21,000 new cases across Russia on Tuesday – the Kremlin admits that health facilities are “overloaded” in some regions.

Situation in Moscow “unstable”

It opposes a full national lockdown, is keen to protect the economy, and is optimistic that Russia’s candidate for a Covid-19 vaccine can help find a way out of this crisis.

But on Tuesday, Moscow’s mayor announced new restrictions, including a 11:00 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants, describing the coronavirus situation in the capital as “unstable”.

The ice has disappeared for now, but the Ice Palace Hospital is equipped with the latest digital technology and the chief doctor is persistently optimistic.

“Every day we take in between 40 and 50 patients, but we also discharge the same amount,” Andrei Shkoda told the BBC under a giant screen that once displayed figure skating results: last winter before Covid.

This year, Mr Bean will be showing films of Soviet classics that the sick can watch from their beds.

The field hospital was built in a month during the first surge in Covid cases and was never used. A short scan of the spectator stands now shows that around a third of the 1,347 beds are full.

Critical role of field hospitals

The spare capacity in Moscow is in stark contrast to some regions of Russia, where even state television now reports on provincial hospitals, which at best are overcrowded and overcrowded. The same goes for some morgues.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionHospitals across Russia are crowded with queues like this one in Omsk last week

Moscow still has the highest number of new cases and there are regular queues of ambulances in city clinics and long waits for free Covid tests or home visits from doctors.

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However, the field hospitals, some of which are staffed by doctors from the regions, play a crucial role, not least so that regular hospitals can continue the planned health care.

Dr. Shkoda says Covid patients are noticeably younger and also sicker in cases this fall after treating themselves at home.

“In the spring everyone was scared, so they came for help earlier. This new wave is likely due to a lot of people failing to take precautions,” he believes.

Image descriptionMedical professionals say they have good supplies of protective equipment

If so, it was the Russian politicians who set the tone.

Masks are now mandatory in public

This summer, they hailed a “victory” over the virus and sought to improve sentiment ahead of a vote on constitutional reform that gave Vladimir Putin a way to stay in power.

Social life here in the capital immediately revived, and hardly a mask was visible.

It is not that easy to reintroduce unpopular restrictions after the infections pick up again.

Image descriptionMasks are now required in public transport and other public spaces

Russia’s health watchdog recently mandated face coverings in all public spaces, which resulted in fines. Most other anti-virus decisions, however, are left to the regional governors.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin not only closed bars and clubs early, but also switched college students to distance learning and reduced cultural and sporting events for the next two months.

He described the steps as “most uncomfortable” but necessary as the pandemic put pressure on health care providers.

“I hope these measures work and save thousands of lives and the health of many Muscovites,” he wrote on his blog.

Is there a mass vaccination program coming up?

In the meantime, there has been a lot of talk about Sputnik V, one of several Russian Covid-19 vaccines under development.

When Pfizer announced on Monday that its own vaccine was more than 90% effective, the Russian Ministry of Health immediately declared it to be Sputnik, although it is still in the middle of mass trials.

The ministry also said clinics would soon receive their first “industrial-scale” shipments of Sputnik V, suggesting a mass vaccination program is imminent.

In a clinic in the south of Moscow, racks of tiny vials are already stored in large freezers. The team there delivered around 50 shocks a day to some of the 40,000 volunteers who took part in the trials.

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If we can get a vaccine that will keep people from getting this disease, it will be very lucky for all of us

Natalya Shindryaeva
Chief Physician of Polyclinic 2 in the south of Moscow

In a room in the hallway, Alexei rolled up her sleeve for the second of two injections. The first, three weeks earlier, had not caused any adverse reactions.

“Our bosses asked us to take part,” said the emergency doctor, who has been working with Covid cases since April. “I’ve seen a lot of people get sick and it’s not nice,” Alexei explained. “So I would prefer not to get it.”

Another volunteer in the queue said he was the only one from his job who had agreed to participate. “The others are scared,” he shrugged.

Image descriptionMany medical professionals have been asked to volunteer for Sputnik V studies

Dr. Shkoda had no such reservations. He says he and seven colleagues had the bumps and describes his subsequent antibody level as “good”.

“Covid is not going anywhere, he lives with us,” explains the chief doctor as he drives past his ice hospital in huge white suits and breathing masks and patients are connected to oxygen hoses.

Although the doctor is confronted with the consequences of the coronavirus every day, he is not pushing for another full lockdown.

“I don’t think we need stricter measures, but everyone has to act responsibly,” he argues before being sprayed with disinfectant and leaving the red zone.

“Then it is the vaccine that will ultimately help us defeat this.”

Related topics

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  • Russia
  • Coronavirus blocking measures
  • Coronavirus vaccine development
  • Moscow

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