As Russia’s COVID-19 toll surges, a Siberian hospital struggles to cope

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BIYSK, Russia – The beds at the intensive care unit at this Siberian hospital rarely stay empty for long. Doctors at Hospital No. 2 in the Russian city of Biysk are having to cope with an unprecedented surge of coronavirus patients, many of whom are unvaccinated.

Doctors at the hospital have to work up to three 24-hour shifts in a row. The work is much harder than during the first wave of the pandemic last year, deputy chief doctor Olga Kaurova said.

“Last year we kept the numbers at 23-24 people. Today we have 65 people in intensive care,” Kaurova told Tolk Channel, a local media outlet, on Wednesday. “Most of our patients in the ICU are not vaccinated.”

Younger patients were also being admitted more frequently, she said, citing a recent case of a 19-year-old woman dying.

With a population of just over 200,000, and located 3,000 km (1,864 miles) southeast of Moscow, Biysk has become a hot spot in the Altai Krai region during a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.

Russia hit a record toll for the fifth successive day on Saturday, with 1,075 deaths, and the country is preparing to go into a nationwide lockdown at the end of the month.

“There are major difficulties with staff. Some people come and just cannot cope with the enormous workload here,” said the hospital’s chief doctor, Aleksei Karhaukhov.

“Those who stay work to their full capacity, without having any mercy on themselves.”

Despite developing its own COVID-19 vaccine early in the pandemic, Russia has vaccinated only about a third of its population, one of the lowest rates in Europe, with citizens citing distrust of the authorities and new medical products.

Last week, Biysk authorities reported a sharp rise in coronavirus infections. Local media reported that an additional morgue had to be opened and the mayor’s office was seeking to extend the territory of the local cemetery.

The regional authorities in Altai Krai had set a target of vaccinating at least half the 2.2 million population, but so far only 700,000 people have received two doses.

Inside the hospital, footage this week showed patients lying on beds hooked up to oxygen. One received a back massage from the doctor aimed at preventing further lung damage.

“It’s only when it comes to this point that people start to understand that they should always wear gloves, change masks and keep a 1.5 metre distance even in the street,” said one patient, speaking from a hospital bed while wearing an oxygen mask.

Asked whether he had been vaccinated, he said: “I was not. And I regret I did not get vaccinated.”

(Writing by Maria Vasilyeva; editing by Matthias Williams and Timothy Heritage)