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‘The first wave didn’t end’ Tourism season leaves behind a flood of coronavirus patients in Crimea

Source: Meduza
Viktor Korotayev / Kommersant

Convenient statistics

According to official statistics, Russian-annexed Crimea identified its first coronavirus case on March 21. By the beginning of May, when morbidity rates were rising sharply all across Russia, Crimea had recorded 100 cases of the infection; Sevastopol, its largest city, had 85. At that time, the Primorsky Krai, Omsk Region, and Leningrad Region — Russian regions with populations comparable to that of the peninsula (about 2.3 million people) — had recorded 430, 116, and 929 cases, respectively.

The Russian authorities attributed the particularly large number of infections in Sevastopol to a jump in incidence on April 29 — on that day, instead of the typical one to six new cases, they recorded 40 new ones all at once. According to Mikhail Razvozhaev, who was Sevastopol’s acting governor at the time (he became its elected leader after the September 2020 vote), a coronavirus hotbed had emerged at a construction site at Sevastopol’s Belbek International Airport, where 36 people had fallen ill at the same time. From then until the end of July, the city registered no more than ten new COVID-19 cases daily. 

Similar outbreaks took place in other parts of Crimea, as well — for example, at the Saky District Hospital and the Alushta City Hospital. At both facilities, patients admitted to the “clean” zones were subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19. Twenty-two people fell ill at the hospital in Saky and 34 in Alushta. There were subsequently outbreaks among several dozen people at various construction sites, as well as at the Yevpatoriya City Hospital

Nevertheless, the authorities decided to reopen Crimea to tourists on July 1, lifting the mandatory two-week observation period for visitors and self-isolation regime for locals. “The epidemiological situation in the region is stable and controlled, allowing us to make such decisions,” said the Head of the Crimean Republic, Sergey Aksyonov. 

According to official data, July was a calm month on the peninsula. By August 1, the Republic of Crimea had recorded 1,269 cases of the disease and in Sevastopol there were 344. For comparison, the Primorsky Krai and Omsk Region had about 7,000 cases at this time, and the Leningrad Region had around 6,000

Meduza spoke with five medical workers from Sevastopol City Hospital Number Nine and Simferopol City Clinical Hospital Number Seven, who treated coronavirus patients. They all said that they experienced heavy workloads even before the peninsula opened for the tourism season; after it began, almost all departments ended up jammed to capacity with patients. 

“People think: first wave, second wave. At our hospital the first one didn’t end. So for us there’s no second one,” a nurse from Sevastopol City Hospital Number Nine said, on condition of anonymity. 

In conversation with Meduza, three medical workers expressed certainty that initially, the authorities underreported the coronavirus statistics on the peninsula. “I think it was done so as not to lose the tourists and the [holiday] season,” said the nurse from Sevastopol City Hospital. 

At the same time, all of the healthcare workers Meduza interviewed noted that since August, the official statistics have come to more or less reflect the actual state of affairs on the peninsula — this was precisely when the numbers began to rise, and the increase is continuing to this day. According to official data, since the beginning of August the number of coronavirus patients in Crimea has more than tripled, reaching a total of 4,350 cases by September 28 (since the start of the epidemic). The number of confirmed cases increased more than two and a half times in Sevastopol, reaching 969.

The daily increase in the number of new cases is also going up. That said, it has yet to exceed 100 cases, for now. The number of recoveries ranges from two to 116 per day.

Understaffed hospitals face workloads ‘beyond human capabilities’

In August, the Crimean government reported a shortage of around 500 doctors and 1,500 paramedical specialists. However, the Head of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, had announced practically the very same figures even before the pandemic, in 2019. 

All of the Crimean medical workers Meduza interviewed complained of severe personnel shortages in infectious disease hospitals. However, they noted that they aren’t experiencing problems with the supply of protective gear, medicines, or medical equipment, due in part to the peninsula’s political status. 

“The only big problem is personnel. There’s not enough. It’s really lacking. Even taking into account the fact that they’re paying more for work with the coronavirus, no one is coming to work and many are leaving,” a nurse from the Sevastopol City Hospital said. There’s a direct connection between staff refusing to work with the coronavirus and the personnel shortages, she explained: “I, for example, went to work in other departments and had never worked with men, grandfathers, the bedridden, and seriously ill patients. Therefore, those who had also never worked with these [patients] and didn’t want to, left. Some stayed, but it was difficult for them.”

As a result, Crimea’s coronavirus hospitals were left looking for staff — the Health Ministry even posted advertisements on its website. “Can you imagine the scale of the problem if officials are looking for medical personnel through an ad? There’s no reserves, few specialists, and after a series of unpleasant stories about the presidential allowances for work with coronavirus patients, there’s almost no one who wants to work there, especially on a rotating basis,” one of the Crimean healthcare workers said.

In September, officials started transferring emergency physicians from the north of the peninsula to its southern coast, to compensate for the lack of personnel during the holiday season. They’re planning to transfer an additional 85 healthcare workers — mostly nurses and anaesthesiologists — to Crimea from other regions. The authorities are promising medical workers material support, including vacation vouchers.

The growing number of patients is exacerbating the staffing shortages. “Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that there were 100 patients in the hospital in the spring. Now there’s 80–90 on each of the [four] floors. The issue with beds has been more or less resolved, since the maternity hospital adjacent to our hospital is also accepting patients with covid already,” an employee at one of Crimea’s hospitals told Meduza.

Yuri Zhukov, the head of the Sevastopol Infectious Disease Hospital’s intensive care unit, said that as a result, many healthcare workers are being forced to take on workloads “beyond human capabilities.” 

“There simply aren’t enough hands. Many medical workers have been ill or are ill. Not everyone wants to risk their health and the health of their families, even if it’s for additional pay. The number of cases among medical workers has grown, as it did among the population,” an employee from a Simferopol hospital told Meduza. According to the medical workers Meduza interviewed, all in all, hospitals are lacking about half the necessary staff for providing quality care.

According to the unofficial “Memory List” of medical workers who have died during the pandemic, one doctor died in Crimea, as did one nurse in Sevastopol. Meduza’s sources confirmed these figures. As of September 1, Sergey Aksyonov reported that 269 medical workers in Crimea had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

A medical center for treating coronavirus patients, opened on the base of the Naval Clinical Hospital Number 1472 in Sevastopol. May 15, 2020.
Sergey Malgavko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Two different stories about the influx of tourists

In July and August, 3.5 million people visited Crimea, according to official statistics. During that time, hotels along Crimea’s southern coast had 95 percent occupancy, and 80 percent of rooms were full on average across the peninsula, Sergey Aksyonov said. On social media, some local residents complained that a lot of tourists weren’t respecting social distancing and other precautionary measures. Speaking anonymously, Crimean hoteliers said the same thing to the Daily Storm, explaining that they allowed tourists to violate coronavirus restrictions, “because there’s no other choice, otherwise you won’t do business.”

The head of Crimea underscored that they didn’t record any outbreaks among tourists, but only identified isolated cases. However, the medical workers who spoke with Meduza said that now, a lot of the patients admitted to infectious disease hospitals are, in fact, tourists.

The republican Health Ministry’s chief infectious disease specialist, Tatyana Odinets, admitted at the end of July that the flow of tourists was likely to cause a second coronavirus wave in Crimea. “It all depends on how sanitary norms will be observed. If the coronavirus [spins out] then anything is possible, especially since now the conditions for proliferation in Crimea are more favorable than in another region of Russia,” she said.

The Sevastopol Health Department’s chief epidemiologist, Sergey Gryga, confirmed this in September. He called what the peninsula experienced in the spring and summer sporadic morbidity — that is, the lowest degree of intensity. “It was point-to-point, from [outside]. I wouldn’t say that this is an incidence. Here, incidence [of the coronavirus] came to us after we opened our city for tourists. […] Naturally, now it’s impossible to determine the source, it’s among us. We are still heading towards the peak,” he said on September 24. 

However, the large number of tourists isn’t the only factor contributing to the spread of COVID-19. Iskander Karimov, the head of the Infectious Diseases Department of Crimean Federal University’s Medical Academy, said that the growth of morbidity in the region could be due to the fact that vacation season has ended and people have returned to work and school, meaning they’re coming into contact with each other more often. He also pointed out that in September, the nights in Crimea have become cooler and viral respiratory infections have begun circulating, on top of the fact that Crimean residents failed to observe the self-isolation regime that was in place in the spring and early summer.

In May, Crimean Federal University’s Analytical Center predicted a sharp jump in the number of coronavirus cases in the region at the end of August, if the peninsula were to open its main sectors in the holiday and tourism industry. As the university notes now, this forecast was 80–90 percent accurate. 

In September, Crimean Federal University’s Analytical Center issued a new forecast, saying that by the end of November, the number of active cases could increase from 600 (the number at the end of August) to 5,000, in other words, more than eight times. At the moment, the number of active cases on the peninsula has already exceeded 1,800. 

Fearing a similar scenario, the Crimean authorities limited admission to local summer camps for children from other regions due to the coronavirus situation back in July. However, on September 18, Nina Lazareva, the head of the international department of the Artek International Children’s Center, revealed in an Instagram post that more than twenty teachers at the camp had contracted the disease and the administration wasn’t taking any measures. In the video, she gave her name and her position, to draw attention to the problem because, in her words, “the clock is ticking here now.” “Teachers who are in contact go to the children’s classes. Also, there’s now a teacher in the guest building whose covid [case] was confirmed at 4:00 p.m. yesterday. He’s had a high temperature for more than a week, he isn’t receiving medical help, and he hasn’t been taken to the hospital,” she said.

Lazareva told Meduza that the teachers and counselors at the Artek summer camp began falling ill in early September, after everyone was tested for COVID-19 before their shift began. Then, they had to start hospitalizing people: in total, according to Lazareva, around 20 people went to the hospital. She saw several more people who were sick — but weren’t hospitalized — in the Kedr Dormitory, where she lived.

A few hours after she posted the video on Instagram, Artek’s official page on the social networking site VKontakte published a statement claiming that Lazareva was misleading people and spreading fake news — allegedly due to the fact that she had been dismissed, something she found out about while on vacation. Lazareva herself confirmed that she had been fired. 

What’s more, in an anonymous comment to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a math teacher from Artek said that everything Lazareva said in the video is true. According to him, the teachers began falling ill after the administration carried out testing for COVID-19, which required everyone gathering together in a stuffy, closed room. Those who were tested weren’t isolated afterwards, and they continued working, the math teacher confirmed.

After Artek posted its statement, they blocked Lazareva’s corporate SIM card and disconnected the wifi in her dormitory. As Lazareva recalls, doctors came to the dormitory later in the evening on September 18, and examined the teachers with suspected cases of COVID-19, including herself. “By that time, I had a fever of 37.5 degrees [Celsius, or 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit], I was coughing, and they sent me to the coronavirus hospital in Yevpatoriya. I’m still being treated here, I’m waiting for the test results [for the coronavirus],” she told Meduza. 

Artek has only confirmed that three employees out of its staff of 2,567 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the last week. They didn’t say if anyone was diagnosed earlier. The Crimean Health Ministry told Kommersant that as of September 19, none of the 1,018 children at the Artek camp had been hospitalized with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Lazareva also didn’t know of any children who had fallen ill.

‘We will not close anything’

In late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhaev discussed the growth of coronavirus morbidity in the region. Putin called the increased number of infections over the summer “understandable.”

“This is understandable given the summer period, when people communicate with each other quite closely and gather in large groups. I’m sure that due to the measures we are taking at the federal and regional level this situation will improve gradually, but I’ll repeat once again, it will not improve on its own, we need to take the necessary steps for this,” he declared.

In response, Razvozhaev said that thanks to the measures taken by the federal government, Sevastopol had managed to overcome the main threats of the coronavirus. On the other hand, not long before that, he had reinstated the region’s mandatory mask regime for closed spaces and public transport, but lifted other restrictions. 

“We will not close anything, we will not restrict, we will not limit ticket sales for all events. But masks should be mandatory, this has to be controlled,” the Sevastopol governor said on September 18. 

In July, Sergey Aksyonov announced that he wouldn’t bring back any of Crimea’s coronavirus restrictions. “The holiday season has begun, and all decisions related to a rollback — I mean, on the opening of tourism businesses — will involve even greater consequences. In my opinion, we must all learn to survive with the existing realities. The coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, we understand this. I believe there won’t be a return to the previous restrictions,” he said. 

In mid- September, Aksyonov said once again that the region wouldn’t introduce any new restrictions. “As we agreed, neither entire industries nor business sectors will be closed. Schools will not switch to distance learning. However, Rospotrebnadzor [Russia’s public health authority] is making a decision locally, by class, if there are certain [developments]. No new rules, regulations, or regimes are being introduced. All current norms in the republic related to the work of enterprises are mandatory,” he said.

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Story by Bumaga journalist Evgeny Antonov 

Translation by Eilish Hart

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