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Russia's own Diamond Princess Doctors at a St. Petersburg medical center have been under quarantine for two weeks with hundreds of coronavirus patients in their care

Source: Meduza
Petr Kovalev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In mid-April, St. Petersburg saw a spike in coronavirus cases — all because of one local trauma center

According to official statistics, St. Petersburg had 424 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on April 17. A day earlier, there were just 154. The authorities attributed this sharp increase to an outbreak at the city’s “Vredena” Orthopedics and Traumatology Research Institute.

On April 19, the head of the St. Petersburg Health Committee, Dmitry Lisovets, revealed that all of the cases at the research institute had been registered “at once." But he did not say how many cases the center had registered at that time.

The “Vredena” Institute was closed for quarantine on April 9. Two weeks later, there are around 700 people still inside, including 260 employees. The St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka described the center as a “harsh version of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.”

A patient reportedly brought in the virus. Doctors immediately braced themselves for nearly everyone inside falling ill.

Meduza managed to speak with three employees of the “Vredena” Institute. A surgeon said that employees were informed on the evening of April 8 that the center had been infected with the coronavirus. “Up until now, it’s not clear how it got here. The official story is that it slipped in with patients from outside,” the doctor said. Two other employees supported his claims.

Between April 8–9, all staff underwent COVID-19 testing and made a joint decision about who would stay at the center with the patients. The majority of the employees — the center has more than 1,000 — went home to self-isolate. In the orthopedic-trauma department, only eight of the 25 employees remained. 

The patients were not allowed to go home — even those who were supposed to be discharged on April 9. They were all tested for the coronavirus. “I can’t say that the patients were very pleased. Those who were supposed to be discharged on the 9th were very disappointed. They were in shock over what was happening,” Head of Neuro-Orthopaedic Surgery Dmitry Ptashnikov told Meduza

According to other employees at the center, the doctors immediately understood that nearly everyone inside would fall ill. “The employees stayed voluntarily. And everyone expected to become infected. Our department head said it directly: there is a 99.9 percent [chance] that we will be infected,” an employee told Meduza, saying that medical workers expected as much because the doctors did not have the necessary protective equipment. For example, instead of proper protective suits, they only had disposable surgical gowns. “There were a lot of factors, including overcrowding and a lack of adequate PPE,” another employee told Meduza

The institute's director contracted coronavirus. Infected doctors kept working.

One of the first employees to fall ill was the institute’s director, Rashid Tikhilov. He was hospitalized at St. Petersburg’s Botkin Infectious Disease Hospital on April 11. On April 21, Tikilov reported that he was already recovering. 

Dr. Dmitry Ptashnikov told Meduza that seven of the 10 quarantined workers in his department have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Ptashnikov fell ill himself; he had a high fever for several days. Now he and the other doctors in the department are feeling relatively okay. 

Meanwhile, the sick doctors continued to treat patients, “Well what else were we to do? There was no choice,” Ptashnikov says. Among the patients in his department, a few dozen people caught the coronavirus and many of them were diagnosed with pneumonia. 

Other departments are facing a similar situation where infected doctors continue to work, Meduza’s sources confirm. At the same time, they have tried to minimize the spread of the disease, sorting patients into wards based on their symptoms, and trying to isolate them if possible. 

However, it was impossible to stop the spread of the disease under these conditions completely, say the medics. “At a certain point, it became impossible to isolate and separate the patients with [COVID-19] because they were in all of the wards. So the virus went through almost everyone,” Ptashnikov says.

The doctors emphasize that they wore masks and other available protective equipment, but they understood that this would not protect them or the patients from the infection: “We continued to uphold the norms formally, but objectively this did not work.”

Even the doctors don’t know how many are infected. Many haven't receive their test results.

The official number of coronavirus cases at the Vredena Institute remains unknown. According to Fontanka’s reports, there are more than 500 suspected cases of COVID-19 among the employees and patients. On April 23, however, the St. Petersburg Health Committee refused to answer Meduza’s question about the number of infected people at the institution.

At the time of publication, the federal government's COVID-19 coordinating council and Russia's Health Ministry had not responded to Meduza's questions. The Vredena Institute did not answer our calls or messages, either.

The employees who spoke to Meduza note that they also do not know the total number of cases, due in part to the fact that not even all staff were informed about their own test results. One of the center’s surgeons told Meduza that he has yet to receive the results of a test he underwent on April 9. He remained in self-isolation and performed another test at home — it came back negative.

Meanwhile, doctors stress that at least 70–80 percent of the approximately 700 people remaining under quarantine at the center have been infected with COVID-19, according to their data.

Patients and doctors are gradually being discharged. Seriously ill patients are being transferred.

Over the course of these two weeks, the patients “seriously ill” with the coronavirus have been sent to specialized hospitals. “We made a realistic assessment of our capabilities and decided that there was no need for heroism,” Ptashnikov explained. 

He also told Meduza that the center received new orders from Rospotrebnadzor on the evening of April 22. Now patients who have recovered or were never infected in the first place will be discharged after two negative coronavirus tests. These patients are now separated inside the institute and testing is underway. When exactly they will be able to leave remains unknown. It will depend on how quickly the test results come back. 

At what point some of the doctors will be able to go off duty also remains unknown. Meanwhile, according to Ptashnikov, the center’s employees on the outside will be allowed to come back to work after two negative coronavirus tests.

Throughout this ordeal, the employees remaining in quarantine at home have helped their colleagues in lockdown. Immediately after the quarantine was announced, doctors donated 2,000 rubles ($27) each, in order to buy their colleagues needed supplies. Most of the money went to protective equipment — and they’re even handing out gifts inside the center.

“Yesterday, one employee had a birthday. She was given a present. Everything's alright,” another staff member told Meduza.

Story by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Eilish Hart

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