With COVID-19 deaths climbing and hospitals strained, Russia rolls out restrictions

As an increasingly deadly fourth wave of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm Russia’s hospitals, officials who had been hesitant to implement restrictions in recent months are doing so now in a desperate attempt to try to reduce the record number of people dying every day. 

On Monday, there was an all-time high of 37,930 new cases, along with 1,069 additional deaths, according to the country’s coronavirus task force.

“There is a real war in the red zone in hospitals throughout the country,” Dr. Denis Protsenko, the country’s chief coronavirus doctor, wrote on his Telegram social media account

“Look at the number of free beds and a lot will fall into place.”

Protsenko is the head doctor at the Kommunarka infection disease hospital in Moscow, 

Municipal officials say since September, cases in Russia’s capital have risen by 30 per cent each week and are hovering around 8,000 a day — a trajectory that Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has acknowledged is a “worst-case scenario.”

Alexander Lobanov of Moscow will turn 60 a few days after new coronavirus restrictions kick in. He is unvaccinated and could face a four-month stay-at-home order unless he gets the shot. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

To try to curb the spread, the city is bringing in a partial lockdown that will begin Thursday. 

As of Monday, it is ordering anyone over the age of 60 to stay home until Feb. 25 if they haven’t been vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19 during the past six months. 

On his website, Sobyanin made a plea to grandparents to get vaccinated, pointing out that the vaccination rate for those older than 60 is slightly more than 30 per cent in Moscow, while that demographic makes up 86 per cent of those dying in the city’s hospitals.

In an effort to increase vaccinations among that age group and those with chronic illnesses, the city of 12 million is imposing tough restrictions that kick in on Oct. 25 for those who haven’t been vaccinated or previously infected. 

They are supposed to stay at home for four months, but are allowed out for walks and exercise.  

Artyom Sabirov, the manger at Uilliams restaurant in Moscow, said it is disappointing to be closing again especially after getting a Michelin recommendation. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

It’s not clear how the order will be enforced, but during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, Maria Markova said public health officials called to check up on her to make sure she was at home. 

The 73-year-old, who had COVID-19 in 2020, isn’t vaccinated and said it’s because of underlying health conditions. 

“I don’t think it is right that they force people,” Markova told CBC as she was out for a walk near the Moscow river on Friday. 

“The pensioners and the older people are the target again? This is totally unacceptable.”

Alexander Lobanov, who is turning 60 on Nov. 1, spoke to CBC as he was riding his bike nearby. He is also unvaccinated, but is resigned to the fact that he may have to get it. 

“I feel like I have no choice now,” he said. 

A medical specialist works in the intensive care unit of the City Clinical Hospital Number 52, where people suffering from COVID-19 are treated in Moscow on Oct. 21, 2021. (Maxim Shemtov/Reuters)

With more than 1,000 people dying of COVID-19 every day for the past 10 days and with vaccination rates lagging, Russia has declared a non-working week from Nov. 1 to Nov. 7. 

It coincides with statutory holidays on Nov. 4 and 5 for Unity Day, which commemorates a 1612 uprising against Polish and Lithuanian forces. 

In addition to the non-working week, Moscow is imposing a partial lockdown between Oct. 28 and Nov. 7. During this period, all non-essential stores will be closed and dining in at restaurants will be banned, but public transport will continue to run. 

11 days of restrictions

Theatres and museums will also keep operating but at 50 per cent capacity and all visitors will be required to show a vaccination QR code or proof they have had a recent COVID-19 infection. 

The measures are slated to only last for 11 days and the mayor said the restrictions are akin to taking an aspirin for a fever. 

The pill won’t cure the illness, he wrote, but it gives the body a break. 

“Let’s take a little rest and help preserve the lives and health of many people,” he wrote. 

Some other cities, including St. Petersburg, which is also going into a partial lockdown on Oct. 30, are making it mandatory for all public places like restaurants and gyms to require guests to have a QR code.

However, Moscow isn’t requiring that.

Moscow resident Elena Romanchenko, 34, isn’t vaccinated and says no one in her family is. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Officials enacted that measure in June, but cancelled it after three weeks because of pressure from the hospitality industry. 

In the wealthy Moscow neighbourhood of Patriarch Ponds, streets are lined with upscale restaurants, including Uilliams, which was one of nearly 70 eateries in the city recognized by the French Michelin guide last week. 

The recommendation would normally be a boon for reservations, but Uilliams, an Italian restaurant, is getting ready to shut its doors to customers.

“I guess it’s necessary and maybe it will even help,” said 28-year-old Artyom Sabirov, the manager at Uilliams.

“The main thing is it doesn’t drag on for too long like it did two years ago.”

Hesitation over restrictions

While officials in Russia have been hesitant to institute restrictions, the climbing cases and deaths are taking a toll on hospitals and medical staff. 

In the Siberian town of Biysk, 3,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow, there are reports that some hospital staff are having to work 72 hours straight in order to keep up with the number of COVID-19 patients being admitted. The town also had to build an additional morgue.

In Biysk, like elsewhere in Russia, vaccination rates are low.

Across the country, slightly more than 40 per cent of adults have had two doses of a vaccine, according to Gogov, which tallies statistics from across Russia. 

Pavel Volchkov, a scientist with the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, believes the partial lockdown in the city will bring the climbing COVID-19 case rate down. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The Sputnik V shot, which Russia unveiled in August 2020, hasn’t been cleared for use in anyone under the age of 18, so the country’s approximately 30 million children remain unvaccinated. 

Despite pleas from government officials, including President Vladimir Putin who got the Sputnik jab, the vaccination rate has stalled. 

On Oct. 21, Putin reiterated that he doesn’t support mandatory vaccinations, but stressed that people only have two options, “get sick or get vaccinated.”

Much stronger words are being used by the pro-Kremlin broadcaster, Dmitry Kiselyov, 67, who hosts a weekly news program, Vesti Nedeli.

Normally, he uses the airtime to criticize Western governments and culture, but recently he has been railing against Russia’s unvaccinated 

Kiselyov, who said he was vaccinated in January, was hospitalized with coronavirus last month.

Sputnik vaccine not approved yet by WHO

“To refuse getting the vaccine can’t be called anything but sociopathic behaviour,” he said on his Sunday news program.

“The lion’s share of state funds are going to treat the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated don’t want to take any responsibility.”

While multiple research studies, including one published in the medical journal The Lancet, have pointed to the effectiveness of the Sputnik vaccine, it hasn’t yet been approved by the World Health Organization. 

In Russia, those refusing to get the jab include those who don’t trust the government shot and those who don’t support vaccination in general. 

Elena Romachenko, 34, told CBC that a person can control their own health. 

“Eat well, do sports, ” she said. “Go to the resort, the sea, the mountains, then you will be healthy.”

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Pavel Volchkov, head of a genomic engineering laboratory at Moscow’s Institute of Physics and Technology, believes most vaccine holdouts aren’t against vaccines, but think they don’t need them. 

“I call it the superhero syndrome,” Volchkov told CBC. 

“They believe if they were able to resist COVID-19  during the past year and a half, that SARS-CoV-2 won’t be able to infect them.”

Volchkov, who helped develop COVID-19 tests during the early days of the pandemic, believes countries need to take a stricter approach such as occurred in China and Australia, which locked down entire regions after the detection of a small number of cases. 

He thinks obligatory vaccination is part of the answer but believes it would be unpopular and untenable in most countries. 

As for Russia, he said in order to have “good population immunity,” 70 per cent or more would have to be vaccinated.

As children can’t currently be immunized in the country, that means all adults would have to be. 

And with more than half of them unwilling to get a shot, he said the government has no choice but to institute restrictions every time the hospitals get close to being overwhelmed. 

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