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'The Lying Is The Most Upsetting': Medical Care In Russian North Buckles Under COVID Surge

Patients lie in the corridor of a hospital in Vologda in northern Russia.
Patients lie in the corridor of a hospital in Vologda in northern Russia.

VOLOGDA, Russia -- On November 1, an ambulance picked up Aleksei Krasheninin, who was experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms, including fever and difficulty breathing.

"They waited four hours for the ambulance," his daughter, Nadezhda Krasheninina, told RFE/RL. "He was in a state of severe hypoxia. They carried him out of the building on a stretcher. Then the ambulance had to wait in line for a CT scan."

When he finally arrived at Vologda's City Hospital No. 1, Krasheninin was placed on a gurney in an unused office. There he was left to slowly die, Krasheninina said. He was not given any treatment. He received no oxygen. He wasn't even fed until another patient in the room went to find a doctor.

"On [November 3], I was told over the emergency hotline that my father was on an IV," Krasheninina continued. "They said he was eating, and his mood was good. We telephoned him and he could barely speak. He said that he'd never had an IV or any injections or even spoken with a doctor.

Krasheninina, who lives in Moscow, continued trying to call the hospital to speak with a doctor. Her mother in Vologda was unable to see her husband because she was under quarantine. The hospital representative on the hotline continued to tell Krasheninina that her father was improving. But when she got through and spoke to him herself, she could tell he was dying.

On November 5, Krasheninina arrived in Vologda from Moscow and forced her way into a meeting with the hospital's deputy head doctor, Alevtina Osipova. Osipova checked her father's records in her computer and said he had "excellent lab results by all parameters."

Aleksei Krashenin
Aleksei Krashenin

"I went back to my relatives and after 20 minutes, Osipova called me," Krasheninina said. "She said that she had visited my father in person and, in a quiet voice, said that his oxygen saturation had fallen."

He was placed immediately on a ventilator in intensive care, but it was too late. He died at 10:40 a.m. on November 6, at the age of 66.

"He died from the fact that no one came and helped him," she said. "I think that is a crime."

The hospital declined to comment for this story and referred journalists to press releases and statements by the regional Health Ministry.

'Not Coping'

Krasheninin's story is far from unique in this northern Russian city of some 300,000 people. Local social media has been roiling with similar stories. And the reactions of local officials, often blanket denial or attempts to blame the patients, have often made matters much worse.

"The medical system is not coping," Vologda resident Vladimir Kosterin told RFE/RL. "Everyone understands that this is a difficult situation. But it is the lying that is the most upsetting. If they would just say: 'Yes, we have a problem, but we are working on it.' The only conclusion is that we need to speak out about every problem. We can't be silent. Only then will things change."

"As soon as some noise starts, they don't like it," he added. "Then they start moving and things improve."

The Vologda hospital where COVID-19 cases are being treated.
The Vologda hospital where COVID-19 cases are being treated.

The current spike in COVID-19 cases that is sweeping Russia and many other countries has hit Vologda and other northern regions harder than the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.

According to official statistics, infections in Vologda Oblast averaged about 25 per day during the spring outbreak. Since September, however, there has been a steady rise. In November, the region has seen at least 100 new infections every day. In October, 23 people died of COVID-19 in the region, more than double the figure for September.

Kosterin attracted attention in October with a long post on Facebook about the illness and treatment of his sister, Marina, and her husband.

"Misfortunes never come alone," he wrote. "Together with COVID, the Vologda health-care system entered their lives."

The first time Marina and her husband called an ambulance, the medics refused to take them, telling them they had "an ordinary cold." After their symptoms worsened, the couple called an ambulance again the next day. One arrived after 12 hours and took them to do a CT scan, where they waited another four hours. Only then did they end up at City Hospital No. 1.

"They were left in the corridor," Kosterin said. "There was nowhere else for them. Of course, it was drafty and cold. They were freezing. They weren't given any sheets or blankets. They were just lying on gurneys in the corridor."

After Kosterin's post appeared, Vologda Mayor Sergei Voropanov denied it.

"People are not lying in corridors. The photographs [in the post] were old ones," he said, urging locals not to listen to "gossip."

The city of Vologda lies some 470 kilometers northeast of Moscow.
The city of Vologda lies some 470 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

Vologda Oblast Governor Oleg Kuvshinnikov, however, insisted that "Vologda residents shouldn't lie in corridors," which residents said prompted hospital officials to, at least for a while, put things in order.

However, Marina continued informing her brother about the situation, "like a spy behind the lines," he joked. He continued posting her photographs and comments on Facebook, noting that after the problems became public, the hospital started to fix them.

On November 3, he posted photographs showing patients not only still in corridors, but some also lying on the floor.

'Everyone Was Exhausted'

A municipal official wrote on the post that the patients were "protesting" because of improvement works being carried out in their normal wards. A couple days later, Kosterin wrote that the hospital's chief doctor had said the patients were in the corridor so that doctors could keep a closer eye on them.

Kosterin's sister also reported that there was only one nurse covering her entire floor and that she worked her entire shift in one set of personal protective equipment.

"Everyone was exhausted," Kosterin said. "And they couldn't manage to get anything done. Medicine that should have been given out three times a day…was only handed out in the evening. Plus, there were shortages of sheets, medicines, IVs. It was a disaster."

Marina was in the hospital for two weeks before she was summarily discharged after speaking to a local reporter.

"They said: 'The head doctor's orders -- you are being discharged," Kosterin said, reporting what his sister had told him. They told her to call a taxi and put her out at 8 p.m.

As she was leaving, Marina managed to make one last video showing care packages for hospital patients on the street outside the hospital. After that video appeared, a city official reported in a comment on Kosterin's post that a room had been set up with shelves for such parcels.

The scandal became so widespread that the governor's chief of staff, Anton Koltsov, made a visit to the hospital, after which he proclaimed that the patients "had no complaints."

Marina and her husband recovered from their COVID-19 experience.

But many others have not been so fortunate. Natalya Frolova told RFE/RL how her father, Vitaly Moskvin, died of the illness.

He was hospitalized on September 25 with a diagnosis of pneumonia and a negative COVID-19 test. After about two weeks, he was discharged. Just days later, however, on October 9, he fell ill again and was taken back to the hospital by ambulance. This time his COVID-19 test came back positive.

Vitaly Moskvin
Vitaly Moskvin

"He called and cried every day," Frolova recalled. "He asked us to help him. He complained that no one came to him. No one even gave him water to drink."

On October 16, Moskvin began to have difficulty breathing. He complained of headaches and chest pains.

On October 22, Moskvin had a negative COVID-19 test. "He can be discharged in stable condition," a doctor wrote in his file. "He has no fever. He has no mucus. He is breathing without assistance, efficiently…. Oxygen saturation is 96 percent."

'It's Over'

The next day, Moskvin was sent home. All his relatives were in quarantine, so a doctor gave him the phone number of a personal friend who drove him home for 1,800 rubles ($24).

"He couldn't walk on his own," Frolova said. "The driver carried him right into the apartment. We could barely recognize him. We saw some thin, pale old man. He literally wasted away during his days in the hospital."

She said he was wheezing and had a fever of more than 39 degrees Celsius.

On October 24, they called an ambulance again. Early the next morning, the medics arrived.

"He was already in a pathetic state," Frolova said. "The medics came in and said, 'There is no point in taking him anywhere. It's over.' They left without him. He didn't even want to go."

Vitaly Moskvin died at 9 a.m.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Vologda by correspondent Kirill Kruglikov of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service