A hospital in Almaty -- the largest city in Kazakhstan -- has become the country's COVID-19 hotspot with nearly 200 health-care workers and many patients testing positive for the coronavirus.
The Central Almaty City Hospital has been under quarantine since April 11 with many medics continuing to treat the patients locked down inside the facility.
Many of the other employees -- many with a high fever and persistent cough -- were placed in the city's infectious-diseases hospital. A small group of workers were transferred to another location for a two-week quarantine.
"Ninety-eight percent of the employees in the surgery department, where I work, have tested positive for the virus," said Dr. Ernar Pirimkhan.
"I'm the only one who hasn't tested positive," he told RFE/RL on April 15. But the following day Pirimkhan was also diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, after exhibiting a cough and high fever.
The Blame Game
Municipal health authorities and doctors at the hospital are trading accusations over how the unbelievable situation could occur.
Aizat Moldagasimova, Almaty's chief hygienist, blamed the doctors for what she described as "failing to take precautionary measures."
Moldagasimova said at a press conference on April 13 that some of the doctors continued coming to work despite having a fever themselves.
Doctors, however, say the city Health Department caused confusion by initially declaring that the Almaty Central City Hospital had not been designated a facility that would receive coronavirus patients and therefore it wouldn't be given the necessary personal-protection equipment (PPE) so essential for health-care workers.
Despite making such a declaration, health officials ordered ambulances to take people suspected of having the coronavirus to the hospital, even though it was unprepared for such patients, said Dr. Azigul Zhumakulbai.
"Ambulance workers clad in [PPE] brought the patients with fever and symptoms of pneumonia to our hospital's internal-diseases department...transporting them through a common corridor," said Zhumakulbai.
"It's an airborne infection [and] many employees in the department got infected," she added. "We tried to isolate the department as much as we could. [Eventually] we got protective clothing."
On April 14, hospital chief Almaz Juvashev resigned as the number of new infections grew.
In a Facebook post, Juvashev said, "The city Health Department's instruction to place patients with pneumonia and respiratory diseases symptoms [at an unprepared hospital] was like setting a time bomb."
The hospital workers demanded that health officials reinstate Juvashev and also threatened to sue Moldagasimova.
The Kazakh Health Ministry has apologized to the doctors and vowed to address the problem.
The scandal comes as figures from April 17 show about 400 of the total of 1,498 people infected with the coronavirus in Kazakhstan are medical workers, most of them in Almaty and the capital, Nur-Sultan. Officials have attributed 17 deaths to COVID-19.
The Health Ministry blamed regional governments for failing to provide PPE and other necessary supplies to hospital workers on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus.
The ministry said medical workers' prolonged exposure to people infected with the virus is the main factor behind the high number of infections. But it partially blamed the medics themselves for failing to take precautionary measures.
'Make Your Own Masks'
In some regions of Kazakhstan, doctors complained about a shortage of equipment, test kits, and specialists in rural hospitals.
Tolkynai Ordabaeva, a doctor from Jambyl Province, said she was the only infectious-disease specialist on hand to deal with COVID-19 patients at the main hospital in the Merki district, which has nearly 85,000 inhabitants.
For at least two days in early April, Ordabaeva said she had to come to work with a high fever she developed after coming into contact with COVID-19 patients.
She told RFE/RL that, in the beginning, medics received up to six face masks a day, but eventually nurses were ordered to make their own masks.
"I received masks because I was in direct contact with the patients," said Ordabaeva, who has since been hospitalized. "I got a disposable PPE, although the hem was dirty. But later a hospital manager told us to be economical with the resources."
Resource-rich Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to report the presence of the coronavirus on March 13. Two days later, the country announced an emergency situation that shut the borders and banned public gatherings.