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Russia fights third wave of COVID-19 infections

Elena Barysheva
June 25, 2021

As a third wave of COVID-19 infections threatens to overwhelm hospitals, doctors blame Russia's slow vaccination campaign, as well as people who are lowering their guard or recklessly taking vacations.

People wearing full hazmet suits
Russia is facing a sharp uptick in Covid-19 infectionsImage: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

Doctors and officials in the Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are now openly talking about a third wave of coronavirus infections. Tighter restrictions are being introduced in several regions of the country,vaccination is being made mandatory, and some hospitals are once again being equipped to exclusively handle COVID-19 patients.

Denis Protsenko, the chief physician at Moscow's main hospital for COVID-19 patients, told Russian media that he believes the third wave, which has now engulfed Moscow and St. Petersburg, would reach other regions of Russia by July. He said there were more than 400 patients in the intensive care unit at his hospital, and 200 people were arriving for treatment every day.

"That's more than on peak days during the first two waves," Protsenko said. "We've really taken it far too easy when it comes to attitudes toward wearing masks and maintaining social distancing — basically, everything that we did for a whole year." He said people had grown weary of precautionary measures. That combination triggered this third wave, he said.

Two men in a hospital room
Denis Prozenko (left) with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail MishustinImage: Alexander Astafyev/AP Photo/picture alliance

Though patients' symptoms haven't changed significantly from the previous waves, Protsenko said, doctors are noticing a shorter incubation period for the virus, with initial symptoms appearing four to five days after infection on average, and not seven to nine days as seen previously. He also said patients were not responding as well to treatments that had proved successful during the two previous waves. Doctors at the Moscow hospital have not yet found out the exact reason for this, Protsenko said.

Doctor: 'Get vaccinated'

Doctors from St. Petersburg have also confirmed a third wave of coronavirus infections. "We expect to reach peaks in the number of cases in July, just as last winter — and even exceed them," Mikhail Cherkashin, the deputy chief physician at the MIBS hospital in St. Petersburg, told DW. The medical institute is already treating more patients than it had in spring 2020, said Cherkashin, who is in charge of the computer tomography center during the pandemic.

"We had time to prepare," Cherkashin said. "Now we are again equipping the hospitals, which had already returned to their regular operations in the spring. It's hard to predict what will happen." Cherkashin said doctors had optimism that the number of infections would decrease by the autumn.

Cherkashin said doctors were not overly concerned about the delta variant of the coronavirus. Though it appears to be more contagious, it has not generally lead to a more severe course of COVID-19. "My most important recommendation is to get vaccinated," Cherkashin said. "Unfortunately, the vaccination campaign in Russia is still going too slowly and poorly, which is why mandatory vaccination is being introduced in a number of regions. In addition, of course, you should wear protective masks, wash your hands and avoid crowds."

A gloved hand holding the Sputnik V vaccine vials
Russia developed Sputnik V, but the inoculation drive in the country is going too slowlyImage: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Nationwide wave feared

Doctors across Russia are expecting a significant increase in the number of infections in July. Some hospitals are already running out of beds. "It's been hell for two days," Dr. Elena Kolchina, who heads a polyclinic in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, told DW. "This third wave has just overwhelmed me. I work 12 hours, I'm exhausted, and I hardly have the strength to talk. And this is despite the fact that our clinic is fully staffed with doctors." She added: "Yesterday alone, 62 people came to us with fever and 52 called their family doctor. We didn't have so many cases earlier."

Kolchina said hospitals were gradually reaching capacity. A few weeks ago, the polyclinics were instructed to bring all COVID-19 patients older than 70 to the hospital. Now, she said, it's hard to find available beds. "I think it's because the vaccination of the population is too slow," Kolchina said. "Only 3,000 people have been inoculated here, which is nothing. My boyfriend says that at his hospital all the patients admitted there were not vaccinated."

There are only a few beds left in the hospitals of Bryansk. Vladimir Perlukhin is a doctor at a clinic in the outskirts of the city. "We still have a few free beds at our hospital, but in Bryansk, where we send patients, there are problems," Perlukhin said. "Patients without COVID-19 are turned away because the beds are already full with corona patients."

A woman health worker injects a man in a train
In addition to sluggish vaccinations, doctors say people are letting down their guardImage: Evgeny Kozyrev/REUTERS

Perlukhin blamed the sharp increase in the number of cases on the start of vacation season. "People are careless about the situation," he said. "They walk around in groups of five to 10 people. I currently work in the patient admission department. Within just five hours, I have admitted 30 patients. Compared to the first and second waves, I see more and more young patients."

Dmitry Seregin, a paramedic from Oryol, also fears a third wave in his city. He is concerned about the growing number of CoVID-19 patients in neighboring regions. Oryol has only recently recovered from the second wave.

After the incidence rate dropped in the spring, Seregin said, dedicated COVID-19 staff were reduced. "Medical facilities had already started preparing beds designated for COVID patients as regular patient beds again," Seregin said. "I'm afraid that was too early."

This article has been translated from German. It was originally written in Russian.