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The wave after the wave St. Petersburg sees highest daily increase in coronavirus cases in eight months

Source: Meduza
Alexander Demyanchuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

St. Petersburg registered 2,281 coronavirus cases on Friday, October 1 — the highest daily increase since January 2021. The city also recorded 55 deaths due to COVID-19 and 450 hospitalizations. The day before, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov warned that “If we don't obtain collective immunity, [additional] restrictions will have to be introduced.” According to medical workers, local coronavirus hospitals are already feeling overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the Russian Health Ministry has raised the city’s vaccination target to 3.5 million people. But if vaccination continues at its current rate, this goal won’t be met until the end of next summer.

Summer’s over, but the wave is not

In early September, city officials in St. Petersburg warned that the coronavirus infection rate was creeping back up again. After a summer filled with massive public events, they began banning gatherings consistently (naturally, this didn’t apply to in-person voting in the elections). Even a traditional religious procession that was supposed to take place along the downtown’s Nevsky Avenue on September 12 was cancelled. 

At the same time, the city authorities began increasing the number of hospital beds reserved for coronavirus patients. Once again, many medical facilities were repurposed to treat COVID-19. And much like during the pandemic’s first wave, the Pokrovsky Hospital on St. Petersburg’s Vasilievsky Island had ambulances lined up outside its emergency room. On September 22, journalists from the local newspaper Fontanka counted 14 paramedic crews waiting in line there for their patients to be admitted. 

By late September, infection rates hit the peak seen during the pandemic’s third wave over the summer. Currently, St. Petersburg is registering upwards of 2,000 new coronavirus cases and more than 50 fatalities daily. 

This is happening despite the fact that Russia’s second-largest city has relatively strict public health restrictions (set to remain in place until late October). Masks are required in public places and there are restrictions on holding public events; food courts, theaters, and tourist attractions are also subject to restrictions. It’s also recommended that employers have a portion of their staff work from home.

‘Shut up and work quietly, everyone’

According to the city administration, only 17 percent of St. Petersburg’s hospital beds for coronavirus patients are currently available. However, Meduza was informed that the COVID-19 wards in several hospitals are already overwhelmed and that coronavirus patients are being kept in hallways. Moreover, sources at a local ambulance station told Meduza that the load on hospitals is complicated by the seasonal surge in respiratory infections. 

Hospitals are also having problems adapting to protocols for coronavirus treatment. An employee at the War Veterans’ Hospital told Meduza that one of its wards switched to treating coronavirus patients on October 1, but the hospital still isn’t properly separated into “contaminated” and “clean” zones (to prevent hospital staff from spreading the disease). Instead, there are simply warnings at the entrance and exit to the coronavirus ward, and an orderly on duty nearby. 

“In order to set up the ward as it should be, the premises need to be rebuilt. During the first wave we were outraged. [The hospital administration] told us that we receive extra pay for the potential danger — Shut up and work quietly, everyone,” one hospital employee recalled. The hospital’s communications department assured Meduza that the medical worker’s claims weren’t true.

In turn, a Meduza source at Hospital No. 40, located in north-western St. Petersburg, compared what’s going on to the previous wave: “The situation is about the same. The infection rate is increasing, the hospital is full. The team is exhausted. There aren't always enough oxygen tanks. During a shift on September 29 there were no large, ten-liter oxygen tanks, including in the intensive care unit. As a result, the doctors weren’t able to evacuate severe patients on ventilators from Zarya [an off-site infectious disease ward] to the hospital.”

The St. Petersburg Healthcare Committee told Meduza that there is no oxygen shortage at Hospital No. 40. 

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‘The wave will spread out’

On September 21, reports emerged that the Russian Health Ministry had set a new vaccination target for St. Petersburg. According to the new assessment, 3.5 million people — around 65 percent of the city’s population — need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That said, city officials still haven’t hit the previous target (2.6 million people) set in late June. As of September 21, only 1.6 million people were fully vaccinated, accounting for 46 percent of the city’s new target. Governor Alexander Beglov has already deemed this level of vaccination “insufficient.” 

The current vaccination rate in St. Petersburg is a little more than 5,500 people per day, according to the statistics collected by Gogov.ru. Assuming this figure is correct, vaccinating 65 percent of the city’s population will take until the end of the summer of 2022.

That said, analysts say that the coronavirus situation in St. Petersburg is no worse than across Russia as a whole. Statistics on Yandex searches show an increase in coronavirus-related queries not just in St. Petersburg, but also countrywide. For example, as of September 27, the number of searches for the phrase “lost sense of smell” (one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19) was up six percentage points in St. Petersburg that week. Across Russia, it had increased two-and-a-half fold. The number of searches for “pulse oximeter and [oxygen] saturation” grew by 19 percentage points in St. Petersburg and by 22 percentage points countrywide. And searches for the phrase “coronavirus treatment” were up 15 percentage points in St. Petersburg and 23 percentage points across the country. 

“The situation in the St. Petersburg, by all appearances, is one of the best in the country. But it’s already obvious that the wave will spread out over time,” concluded demographer and analyst Alexey Raksha. 

In turn, independent analyst and biologist Alexey Kupriyanov said that St. Petersburg has reached about the same level of morbidity and mortality as during the third wave. According to his estimates, the infection rate in St. Petersburg could continue to increase for about another month. 

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We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Sergey Kagermazov for “Ekho Moskvy in St. Petersburg” 

Translation by Eilish Hart

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