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Hospitals reach capacity in St. Petersburg as promised free coronavirus tests fail to materialize

Source: Meduza
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Officials in St. Petersburg have offered free coronavirus testing to everyone in the city. On March 16, St. Petersburg’s Health Committee released a list of clinics where anyone who wanted could supposedly get tested without charge for COVID-19. Based on the list, the tests would be available to adults and children at clinics in the city’s Vasileostrovsky, Kolpinsky, Moskovsky, Nevsky, Primorsky, Pushkinsky, Frunzensky, and Central districts. Officials assured the public that at least one hospital in the city’s other districts would also offer coronavirus tests. According to an official government announcement, a mandatory medical insurance policy number would be the only requirement for getting the test. Individuals who test positive for the disease will be hospitalized and their results will be sent for confirmation to the “Vektor” Novosibirsk virology center.

But clinics have refused to perform the test. Immediately after the Health Committee released its list of facilities supposedly participating in the city’s testing program, the local news outlets Bumaga and Fontanka contacted the clinics on the list. Bumaga reached four hospitals where staff said they cannot test for coronavirus and another five clinics didn’t even answer the phone. A correspondent for Fontanka tried and failed to get tested for COVID-19 at one of the facilities. Journalists later discovered that the city’s Health Committee also listed a medical office in the Krasnoselsky district that hasn’t even opened yet, as well as another six clinics that say they cannot currently test for coronavirus. “We have no tests! No masks! Nothing!” said a staff member at Clinic Number 40 in St. Petersburg’s Central District.

Hospital officials in St. Petersburg’s Smolny district say they’ll be able to start COVID-19 testing in the coming days. Other clinics soon started making similar claims, but it remains hypothetical, so far. Late on March 16, spokespeople for the city’s Health Committee clarified that COVID-19 testing was available at just three local clinics — two in the Primorsky District and one in the Central District (though officials didn’t specify which clinics) — while maintaining that all previously listed hospitals will soon offer the test. According to Lieutenant Governor Oleg Ergashev, officials will be working to distribute coronavirus tests to hospitals across the city over the next several days. On March 17, Clinic Number 32 in St. Petersburg’s Petrograsky District and Clinic Number 38 in the Central District confirmed to Meduza that they’ve started testing for COVID-19, though patients first need to register with the specific clinic linked to their mandatory medical insurance policy number. The same hospitals confirmed this information to Fontanka, but the tests nevertheless remain inaccessible, says the website. Additionally, St. Petersburg officials have not explained how they supposedly acquired enough COVID-19 tests to accommodate the entire city. The website Doktor Piter has reported that the test systems were supplied through “a laboratory at the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare.” Earlier this month, on March 5, several news outlets reported that St. Petersburg’s coronavirus tests were coming from the Novosibirsk virological center “Vektor.” The city’s Health Committee did not respond to Meduza’s phone calls.

St. Petersburg has currently recorded seven coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, local hospitals have run out of space for influenza and pneumonia patients. Initially, all suspected COVID-19 patients in St. Petersburg were sent to Botkin Hospital. As of March 16, this included 233 people in addition to five confirmed coronavirus patients. Another two confirmed cases have already been discharged after making full recoveries. Because patients at Botkin Hospital were isolated in rooms designed for two patients, space quickly ran out. Starting on March 3, the city’s Vvedensky Hospital was repurposed for patients suffering from pneumonia and respiratory infections. That facility reached maximum capacity on March 15. A day later, the city repurposed St. George Hospital for pneumonia and influenza patients. On March 17, officials from the local branch of the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare ordered the city’s hospitals to perform coronavirus testing on all patients with severe community-acquired pneumonia and take samples from anyone in this condition who dies.

St. Petersburg has restricted all public assemblies. The city’s coronavirus task force is headed by a man who previously guarded one of Vladimir Putin’s residences. Between March 16 and April 30, St. Petersburg has banned all public gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Ambulance doctors have been ordered to prioritize patients over the age of 60 with respiratory symptoms, and employers have been required to check their employees’ temperatures. On March 17, officials announced the creation of a city center to monitor the coronavirus situation, adding to an existing task force working to curb the spread of the disease. That latter group is led by Lieutenant Governor Valery Pikalyov, who previously served as lieutenant governor of the Leningrad region and deputy cabinet head in the Novgorod region. Before these positions, Pikalyov managed “Department B” of the Presidential Security Service (a subdivision of the Federal Protective Service). In this role, Pikalyov supervised the protection of Vladimir Putin’s residence in Valdai.

Text by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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