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Patients zero everywhere Workers in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula blame a sick Gazprom executive for causing the region’s coronavirus outbreak

Source: Meduza
Gazprom Mining Nadym

There are now 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pangody, a small town in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. One patient has already died. Most locals in Pangody work for divisions of the state gas company Gazprom at the nearby Medvezhye gas field. Meduza has learned that gas workers in the area suspect Medvezhye’s recently hospitalized director, Denis Chudopal, is responsible for spreading COVID-19 throughout the entire Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to spokespeople for Gazprom, however, Chudopal only has pneumonia and tested negative for coronavirus. 

Yamal’s outbreak started in a town full of gas workers 

The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YaNAO) confirmed its first two COVID-19 infections on April 2. Both patients were residents of Pangody, a town of about 11,000 people situated not far from the Medvezhye gas field. Most residents are involved in extracting and transporting natural gas as employees of one of two local divisions of Gazprom: Gazprom Mining Nadym and Gazprom Transgaz Yugorsk. Also on April 2, YaNAO Governor Dmitry Artyukhov placed Pangody under quarantine, prohibiting anyone from entering or exiting the town. 

Despite these containment measures, another 10 people in Pangody tested positive for COVID-19 in the next two days, followed by eight more cases before the week’s end. YaNAO’s coronavirus task force says all these people came into contact with the town’s first two patients. As of April 10, the town had confirmed 21 COVID-19 infections, making it the Yamal Peninsula’s largest outbreak of coronavirus. One of these people, Igor Pashkovsky, a 47-year-old worker at Gazprom Transgaz Yugorsk, died on April 9.

A few days after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Pangody, another 20 infections surfaced in other settlements across the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, in Novy Urengoy, Salekhard, and Muravlenko, raising the region’s total number of cases to 41, with an additional 54 people hospitalized and under observation after coming into contact with those who tested positive for the disease. Throughout YaNAO, there are roughly 17,000 people now under quarantine living in self-isolation. 

Locals blame the Medvezhye gas field’s director for spreading the disease

Denis Chudopal, the director of “Gazprom Mining Nadym” Medvezhinsky Gas Production Directorate, was the first person in Pangody who was hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, three employees told Meduza. All three sources say Chudopal was the region’s “patient zero“ who infected one of his assistants, spreading the virus to other staff and then to residents in neighboring cities. 

Denis Chudopal (right) with his assistant, A. V. Timyashev
Gazprom Mining Nadym

“Either Chudopal or his wife came back from abroad and didn’t stay home for the 14 days. He’s a boss, after all, so I guess the rules don’t apply. He held meetings, he drove around Pangody and Novy Urengoy, and went out and inspected the field. Afterward, everything there had to be disinfected,” a source told Meduza.

After the first Pangody residents were hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms, Gazprom Mining Nadym did, in fact, announce that it was “completely disinfecting” the premises of its Medvezhinsky gas production department and Pangodinsky department and its facilities at the № 1 Medvezhye gas field.

Igor Pashkovsky’s widow, Inna, who works in Gazprom Mining Nadym’s medical unit and has also been diagnosed with COVID-19, told Meduza that she, too, believes Denis Chudopal is the source of the region’s coronavirus outbreak. “Yes, it was him [Chudopal], but nobody’s saying it openly. My husband died from this disease, though he was the third or fourth link in the infection. The executives travel, they vacation, and then they hide it and bear no responsibility. I’m a medical worker and I was infected by them when administering aid. Then I infected my husband. Now he’s dead. Nobody mentions the culprit’s name, but we know. You can’t prove anything in this country. Nothing is true. Nothing will happen to those with power and money,” Pashkovskaya told Meduza

Meduza also learned that theories about Denis Chudopal being YaNAO’s patient zero are rampant on local websites. “Chudopal’s family brought the disease from Italy but we’re forbidden from talking about it!!! They quickly sent them to Moscow and now they won’t even let us speak his name in connection with the virus! They must answer for the fact that the town’s infection came from them, instead of scapegoating others!” wrote one Internet user on the website

Gazprom says Chudopal doesn’t have coronavirus

Spokespeople for Gazprom Mining Nadym confirm that Denis Chudopal was hospitalized in Pangody on March 24 and then transferred to the Nadym Central District Hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. “While in the hospital, Mr. Chudopal was tested for coronavirus four times. All four tests show negative results. Currently, Mr. Chudopal has been discharged from the Nadym Central District Hospital and is continuing treatment at home. [His wife] Irina Chudopal has also tested negative. In accordance with the quarantine measures imposed in the town of Pangody, Mrs. Chudopal is at home and feeling fine,” representatives from the mining company told Meduza.

Meanwhile, YaNAO Health Department director Sergey Novikov announced on April 5 that “doctors will treat all local cases of community-acquired pneumonia as the potential effects of coronavirus infection.” Specialists in other regions across Russia have adopted the same approach. In Moscow, for example, Kommunarka hospital head physician Denis Protsenko recently warned that the accuracy of existing COVID-19 tests is 70-80 percent, leading to a significant number of false negatives. As a result, doctors have abandoned the separation of pneumonia and coronavirus patients. 

Despite prevailing medical opinion, Denis Chudapal was never formally diagnosed with COVID-19, meaning that the Yamal Peninsula’s first official coronavirus cases are two other employees at Gazprom Mining Nadym, who were hospitalized a few days after Chudapal. “They’re ordinary engineers who visited another region of the country and were infected there,” a local government official told Meduza. “Contrary to the opinion spreading widely online, the patients in Pangody had not traveled abroad. I verified this myself with the border patrol. But they were in another region of the country,” YaNAO Governor Dmitry Artyukhov said in a video message on April 5.

The governor’s press service declined to comment further on the situation, redirecting Meduza’s questions to the Gazprom Mining Nadym company. Kirill Trapeznikov, the first deputy director of YaNAO’s Health Department, said he would not address rumors that Denis Chudopal is the region’s “patient zero,” citing doctor-patient confidentiality.

Spokespeople for Gazprom Mining Nadym have stressed that Denis Chudopal and his family did not leave the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in February or March 2020, contrary to statements by locals in Pangody. A source with access to flight records confirmed to Meduza that the last time Denis Chudopal and his wife boarded a plane was in January 2020. Chudopal reserved tickets for trips to Moscow in March and Istanbul in April but later canceled these travel plans.

One employee at Gazprom Mining Nadym told Meduza that YaNAO regional officials initially planned not to report Chudopal’s illness at all. “He was hospitalized on March 24 with pneumonia and put under observation for coronavirus, and it wasn’t reported anywhere. But when two workers from the same enterprise were hospitalized with these symptoms a few days later, they broadcast the news even before the diagnosis was confirmed. Why then were you silent about Chudopal?” asks Meduza’s source, referring to the fact that both Gazprom Mining Nadym and YaNAO’s coronavirus task force issued official statements on March 31 about the hospitalization of two gas workers suspected of contracting COVID-19, though the test results weren’t confirmed until April 2. There are no local reports of anyone else being hospitalized with symptoms consistent with coronavirus.

What’s the coronavirus situation at other Gazprom subsidiaries?

In the Perm region, two employees at “Gazprom Transgaz Chaykovsky” were preliminarily diagnosed with COVID-19 and another 46 workers who were in contact with these two individuals are now under quarantine. One of the patients is Tchaikovsky Gazprom Transgaz deputy general director Stanislav Trapeznikov, who was transferred from the city of Chaykovsky to a hospital in Perm after contracting pneumonia. Spokespeople for Chaykovsky Gazprom Transgaz subsequently stated that Trapeznikov’s coronavirus diagnosis has not been confirmed.

In Yamburg, Gazprom withheld an employee’s monthly bonus after she concealed a trip to Ukraine and failed to self-isolate for two weeks after returning home.

Russia’s regions are looking for someone to blame and quarantining all visiting outsiders

In other parts of Russia, residents have also identified specific “patients zero” allegedly responsible for local outbreaks of coronavirus. In the Stavropol Territory, for example, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 was the regional Health Ministry’s head infectious diseases consultant, Irina Sannikova, who failed to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from a trip to Spain. State investigators later filed criminal charges against Sannikova and she has already pleaded guilty. 

Andrey Kern, a surgeon in Syktyvkar, has been accused of causing an outbreak of coronavirus in Russia’s Komi Republic, though his daughter denied the allegations in a conversation with Meduza, saying her father was infected on the job while treating patients. As of April 10, Komi had 208 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the nation’s fourth-biggest outbreak. A day earlier, the republic’s health minister stepped down.

In the Bryansk region, more than half of the 97 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 belong to the Revival Evangelical Christian Church or have been in contact with members of the congregation. The source of the outbreak is believed to be a local parishioner named Evgeny Kozlov, whose mother and brother returned from a trip to Spain on March 13 and did not immediately self-isolate.

Quarantine violations during the coronavirus pandemic that lead to mass infections are now a felony in Russia. In accordance with legislation signed by President Putin on April 1, offenders face penalties as high as two years in prison or 700,000 rubles ($9,500) in fines.

To curb the spread of coronavirus, several dozen regions throughout Russia have begun extending two-week self-isolation requirements to anyone arriving from Moscow or St. Petersburg, the nation’s two largest clusters of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Story by Maria Kolomychenko

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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