Tired and isolated, Moscow medics tackle coronavirus surge

Moscow (AFP) –


Exhausted and isolated from their families, their faces marked by hours of wearing goggles and masks, the doctors and nurses of Moscow's Spasokukotsky hospital are dealing with a surge of coronavirus patients.

An entire wing of the city hospital has been turned over to virus patients. Less than a week after it opened, almost all the beds are full.

After initially avoiding the mass outbreaks that hit parts of Western Europe weeks ago, Russia is seeing a major increase in coronavirus cases, with Moscow's sprawling metropolis at the epicentre.

Of 62,773 confirmed Russian cases as of Thursday, 33,940 are in Moscow, which also accounts for 288 of the country's 555 deaths.

In Spasokukotsky's ageing buildings, virus patients are already occupying 406 out of 434 beds and medics are working at their limit.

Only identifiable by their names -- "Masha" or "Yura" -- scrawled in marker on the back of their white suits, they take turns donning full protective gear to enter the "red zone" with patients infected with coronavirus.

Dmitry Alayev, 35, normally works as a gastric surgeon but now runs a ward with around 40 virus patients.

After seven hours of work, he is taking a half-hour break before going back in.

"It's not easy working in suits and masks and so on. But surgeons are used to these conditions," he says.

"What's hard is being far away from my family, in isolation," says the surgeon, taking big gulps from a water bottle.

Most of the staff treating coronavirus patients have moved into hotels to avoid infecting family members.

Russian authorities are keen to show off Moscow's medical facilities for virus patients and the capital's hospitals have always enjoyed better resources than those in the regions.

- Fear of infection -

During a visit by AFP organised by the Moscow city health department, doctors at Spasokukotsky say they have ample supplies of protective equipment.

Medics take fresh masks, goggles, suits and shoe covers from full boxes.

This is not the case everywhere in Russia. Medics and trade union representatives have told AFP that many medical workers outside the capital face severe shortages that place them at great risk of infection from patients.

Alayev says he and his colleagues are "very optimistic despite the circumstances".

But he acknowledges concern at the number of medics getting infected.

"When you see the rate of infection among doctors... I think the situation will be pretty serious."

The health ministry has not published any figures on infected medical staff. But dozens of cases have been reported by medics and media.

The chief doctor at Spasokukotsky, Alexei Pogonin, declines to comment on protective equipment shortages elsewhere but stresses that shielding staff is his priority.

"Here we have created unique conditions to care for patients," says the 45-year-old, who is also deputy head of the Moscow city health department.

"Staff are well protected, both physically and psychologically."

There are strict rules on entering the red zone.

Once fully dressed in protective gear, medics wait at its guarded entrance for the exact start time of their shift written on the front of their suits.

- 'We are one family' -

Some have made their white suits look less stark by drawing on pictures of flowers.

While on breaks, medics in green scrubs and checked pyjamas eat together in rest rooms with a stock of books including Dostoevsky and airport novels.

Patients here are also kept comfortable, the chief doctor says, with one or two patients per room with an ensuite bathroom.

Such conditions are rare in Russia's state hospitals, which are often crumbling and squalid after years of funding cuts.

Yet no one wants to talk about what will happen if this hospital or Moscow as a whole run out of beds.

At the current rate of hospitalisations, Russia's total resource of around 80,000 beds will be full up in three to four weeks, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who heads a virus taskforce, warned on Wednesday.

In Spasokukotsky, two nurses curl up together on a couch, comparing their peeling manicures, the red marks left behind by their goggles and masks clearly visible.

With the future uncertain and loved ones far away, medics need to give each other emotional support, said the head nurse, 43-year-old Oksana Baryshnikova.

"We've come to understand that we really are one big team, one family."