Russia's coronavirus cases expected to soar

Case numbers have increased sharply, as Moscow hospitals see influx of patients

Russia’s coronavirus pandemic appears to be becoming increasingly severe, as the number of cases in the country jumped significantly over the weekend and Moscow’s hospitals have started to be flooded with patients infected with the virus.

Russia's recorded coronavirus cases have been growing by over a thousand a day for the past week and on Monday saw a leap of over 2,500 in a single day, taking the total number to 18,328. The death toll currently stands at 130, according to the health ministry.

The Kremlin on Saturday said there was a “huge influx” of patients in Moscow and that hospitals were now working in “emergency mode.”

Videos emerged of a tailback of dozens of ambulances outside a hospital in Moscow’s suburbs handling coronavirus cases. One ambulance driver told Reuters he had been waiting 15 hours to deliver a patient with the virus. Health authorities said the logjam happened because the hospital had been struggling to keep up with the number of patients arriving. Anna Rakova, a deputy to Moscow’s mayor, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that the number of people being hospitalized in Moscow had doubled and 85% of them were suspected coronavirus patients.

“There is a huge influx of patients. We are seeing hospitals in Moscow working extremely intensely, in heroic, emergency mode,” the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday in an interview with state television.

The numbers begin to put Russia more in line with other major European countries, which now have tens of thousands of confirmed cases. For weeks, Russia’s total number of recorded cases was less than a few thousand, with some experts expressing concerns that Russia's testing regime may have been underestimating the real figures. Some critics have accused the government of a deliberate cover-up, but other experts suspect the problem may have been with the testing itself, including a possibly insufficiently sensitive test and overly narrow testing.

In any case, it now appears Russia is entering the stage of the growth curve where the number of cases increase very rapidly. Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, on Friday told the state news agency, RIA Novosti, that Russia is “somewhere at the base of the peak and not the middle.”

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin also acknowledged that the pandemic was worsening.

“We see the situation is changing practically daily and, unfortunately, not for the better,” Putin told a meeting of officials via video-link that was aired on state television. “The number of infected people is growing, moreover increasingly specifically of those with severe symptoms," Putin said, saying the next few weeks would be "decisive" in battling the disease.

Two-thirds of Russia's cases—11,513—are in Moscow, but in recent days clusters of the virus have begun appearing more frequently in other regions. Authorities on Monday sealed off the small town of Vyazma in the Smolensk region, about 150 miles from Moscow, after 86 people in a care home there were found to likely have the virus.

Flights to and from China increase risk

Fueling worries about the possible scale of Russia’s pandemic, over half of all of China’s new reported cases on Saturday came from a flight from Moscow to Shanghai. Fifty-one of 97 new imported cases were Chinese nationals from the flight, Bloomberg reported. It follows another incident last week when nearly half of China’s recorded cases one day came from Russia, when a group of 25 Chinese workers who crossed by the land border near the far eastern city of Vladivostok to the Chinese city of Suifenhe tested positive.

Suifenhe last Tuesday was forced to lock down just as Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, was re-opening.

There are fears that Russia’s crumbling health service will struggle to cope as the pandemic worsens, especially outside Moscow. The Russian military has been racing to build temporary hospitals to house coronavirus patients, which authorities have said will provide thousands more beds for those needing treatment.

Health minster Tatiana Golikova on Monday said that Russia currently had 40,000 beds ready for coronavirus patients and intended to increase the number to 95,000.

Moscow, a city of 12 million, has been under lockdown for two weeks, with residents ordered to stay at home except for visiting grocery stores or pharmacies or seeking urgent medical care. Most of Russia’s most populated regions have also imposed lockdowns, but the restrictions are not uniform.

Police over the weekend set up checkpoints on the roads into Moscow, stopping motorists to check the purpose of their journey. From Wednesday, Moscow is due to introduce an electronic pass system for controlling how residents move about the city. People using their cars or public transport will have to register their trip with a government site, which will provide them with a QR-code that can be checked by police. The system will be rolled out in stages, according to Moscow’s mayor Sobyanin, with the first passes intended for those who need to travel for work.

The site on Monday crashed when it began operating on Monday, which authorities blamed on an attack by hackers, which they said was coming “from abroad,” though it may have struggled to handle the large numbers of people seeking to register.