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How serious is the coronavirus crisis in the country?

Russia registers new coronavirus vaccine 0:46

Moscow . – The limbs of a lifeless body dangle from a gurney in a hospital ward as coronavirus patients fight for their lives just meters away. An elderly woman struggles to breathe, her desperate gasp being a grim soundtrack to one of many haunting videos taken on cell phones coming out of hospitals across Russia.

“This is how our nights are: horrible,” says a male voice narrating the video, given to CNN by a prominent opposition-linked Russian doctors’ union, “Doctors Alliance,” which says it was recorded in mid-October by a a member of the hospital staff in Ulyanovsk, a city east of Moscow.

“Two more fallen on our guard,” he says while filming a corpse. “This is how covid-19 is killing everyone.”

This gruesome video is just one of several obtained by CNN revealing gruesome conditions inside overcrowded facilities. Some images show morgues with bodies, naked, stacked one on top of the other on grimy floors, in scenes that look like war zones rather than hospitals.

Russia struggles to control the pandemic

As Russia struggles to control the pandemic, the videos are one of several signs that point to an actual death toll much higher than official figures suggest.

Russia says that as of Nov. 16 more than 33,000 people have died from covid-19. But that figure is questioned by critics who say the Kremlin does not report the actual numbers.

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Workers wear protective gear at the Novoye Kolpinskoye Cemetery, St. Petersburg, during a funeral in May.

«I think the real figure is [alrededor de] 130,000 people, ”said Alexey Raksha, a former government statistician who has made his estimates based on official data on excess deaths – the number of deaths above what would normally be expected – to assess the number of victims of the pandemic.

Using data from local records, Raksha estimates that Russia reached between 160,000 and 170,000 deaths in excess from April to November. It attributes about 80% of these deaths to covid-19, an aggregated average number of similar statistics published by Western countries.

Excess mortality from coronavirus

Between April and September 2020, Russia’s official excess mortality figure was about 117,000 more deaths, compared to last year, according to Rosstat, the Russian statistics agency. The official death toll from covid-19 for that period is approximately 21,000 people.

No Rosstat data is available yet for October and November, but judging by official counts released by the country’s coronavirus response center, the spread of the pandemic has accelerated rapidly.

Raksha says she left Rosstat in July, after speaking publicly about how the agency counts coronavirus-related deaths. He says that the discrepancy between the official figures and his calculations is due to the way that Russia classifies its losses due to covid.

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A scene from a video released to CNN showing a crowded morgue in Russia’s Ulyanovsk region in October.

Categories

Rosstat uses a four-category rating system, he explains. According to the agency’s website, they are: 1. the patient tests positive for COVID-19 before death; 2. when covid-19 is presumed to be the leading cause of death, but should be confirmed by autopsy or further investigation; 3. when the virus contributed to death in people with underlying illnesses, and 4. when covid-19 is confirmed but not considered a major factor in death.

“Only the first category of victim, when the patient tested positive for coronavirus before dying, is recorded as a death from covid-19,” Raksha told CNN. According to Raksha, the deaths in the other three levels are outside the official figures.

Neither the Russian health ministry, public health regulator Rospotrebnadzor, nor Rosstat have responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

This counting method differs from the World Health Organization guidelines, which state that all deaths related to COVID-19 must be counted unless there is “a clear alternative cause that cannot be related” to the disease.

Vaccinations

Yet as it battles the pandemic, Russia still knows how to put on a good show. In August, amid much fanfare, it became the first country to register a coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, even before the crucial Phase 3 trials began. That vaccine, which was received with skepticism by outside scientists, it has not yet been widely administered.

CNN was also granted exceptional access to a state-of-the-art, 1,300-bed temporary coronavirus hospital in Moscow, set up in what was a world championship ice skating stadium, called the “Ice Palace.”

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The Krylatskoye Ice Palace, which has been converted into a field hospital for the coronavirus in Moscow.

“Complicated but manageable crisis”

“The crisis is complicated but manageable,” chief physician Andrey Shkoda told CNN as he gave us a tour. “Here we have all the necessary diagnostic equipment, ultrasound, anesthesia and ventilators.”

Above, a gigantic screen that usually broadcasts skating or ice hockey scores to the crowd is now used to show movies to patients as they undergo treatment.

The chief physician said that the hospital is completely digital; Each patient is assigned a bracelet with a QR code that links to all their medical records.

“This is standard care,” he told CNN, in Moscow and beyond.

Optimistic picture

However, this optimistic image of a country in full control of the pandemic, with a network of extensive medical facilities, seems increasingly at odds with the graphic images emerging from hospitals, a closer examination of official statistics and the testimony of some medical workers.

Last month, the Russian government admitted increasing strain on its medical facilities and Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said that hospital beds in five of the worst-hit regions were already at more than 95% capacity.

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Staff with the body of a deceased patient at the Novomoskovsky medical center in Kommunarka, outside Moscow, in April.

An ambulance driver in the Saratov region of southwestern Russia, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions at work, said the situation at his hospital is “a disaster.”

“Doctors even refuse to admit elderly patients with breathing difficulties,” he said. «They are told that there is no need to hospitalize them. But the real reason is that there are not enough places in the room.

And in another video given to CNN, filmed in an overcrowded morgue, a male voice speaks about the gruesome images: “We could hardly find a space here. It’s like a horror movie.

Anna Chernova in Moscow contributed to this report.