By DARIA LITVINOVA
MOSCOW (AP) — Coronavirus deaths in Russia hit a record for the third time this month on Tuesday, and new infections once again exceeded 25,000 a day — a surge that comes as vaccination rates in the country remain stagnantly low and the government shuns imposing tough restrictions to stem the spread.
Russia’s state coronavirus task force reported 25,110 new confirmed cases on Tuesday and 895 new deaths — the country’s highest daily death toll in the pandemic. This month, records in fatalities came every other day: the previous record, of 890 deaths, was registered on Sunday, and the one before that, of 887 deaths, occurred on Friday.
The Kremlin has said that the situation elicits concern, but still it is not considering a countrywide lockdown or any other nationwide measures.
A number of Russian regions have limited attendance of mass events and restricted access to some public places, such as theaters, cinemas, restaurants and bars, only to those who have been vaccinated, recently recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative over the past 72 hours. But critics argue that these measures aren’t enough to slow down the surge.
In some areas of the country, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains largely normal, with businesses operating as usual and mask mandates loosely enforced.
In the meantime, Russia’s vast, yet severely underfunded health care system has started to show signs of being overwhelmed by the outbreak.
Russian media have reported long lines of ambulances once again forming in front of hospitals in St. Petersburg, the country’s second-largest city, and a desperate ambulance crew in the city of Vladimir 180 kilometers (about 110 miles) east of Moscow driving a COVID-19 patient to a local government building after failing to find a hospital bed for her.
Officials have blamed low vaccine uptake. Commenting on the record deaths reported on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the “main cause” of the surge in fatalities was “the insufficient level of vaccination.”
“The virus is becoming angrier, and the level of vaccination is insufficient. And as a rule, those who haven’t been vaccinated get seriously ill and, unfortunately, die,” Peskov told reporters Tuesday.
As of last week, 33.5% of Russia’s 146-million population have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and just 27.4% have been fully vaccinated.
According to Gogov.ru, a independent website that tracks vaccinations in Russia, immunization rates are down to the level of April, after spiking between June and August, when dozens of Russian regions made shots mandatory for certain groups of people. The website estimates that about 129,000 people a day get their first shots, and a total of some 244,000 first and second shots a day is being administered in Russia at the moment.
Peskov has attributed the slow pace of the immunization drive to “an insufficiently active campaign explaining that there are no alternatives” to vaccination.
Experts have pointed to several other factors, such as mistrust prompted by the approval and rollout of the dominating domestic vaccine, Sputnik V, even though at the time it hadn’t completed large-scale trials necessary to establish its safety and effectiveness, and lack of motivation to get the shots at a time when few restrictions are in place mixed signals from the authorities about the outbreak.
Despite the soaring infections, officials in Moscow on Monday announced the closure of the largest vaccination point in the Russian capital in Gostiny Dvor, a huge exhibition space, in order to be able to hold “cultural events” there.
At the same time, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin promised to start offering free rapid coronavirus tests in malls and government services centers. Daily new infections in the Russian capital nearly quadrupled over the past month, rising from about 1,100 in early September to about 4,000 this week.
In another confusing message, some Russian news outlets alerted Monday that the head of country’s public health agency Rospotrebnadzor Anna Popova banned all mass events in light of the surge, only to correct themselves later that Popova in fact didn’t announce any new restrictions, but was rather talking about the ones already in place that prohibit public events for more than 3,000 people.
In all, Russia’s coronavirus task force has reported over 7.6 million confirmed cases and nearly 212,000 deaths. However, reports by Russia’s state statistical service Rosstat that tally coronavirus-linked deaths retroactively reveal much higher mortality numbers.
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