COVID-19 deaths are surging in Russia, but vaccination lags

COVID-19 cases and deaths are near all-time highs in Russia, but vaccination rates are lagging.

Officials warn country will pass 30,000 cases per day, as daily death toll approaches 1,000

Wearing masks on Moscow's subway system is mandatory, but there appears to be little enforcement of the measure to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC )

With COVID-19 deaths at an all-time high in Russia, Kremlin and public health officials are pleading with tens of millions of people to get vaccinated, but they say they aren't considering reimposing a national lockdown to try to curb the deadly fourth wave. 

According to official figures, Russia recorded nearly 30,000 cases and 957 deaths on Monday. Throughout the pandemic, the country's coronavirus task force has attributed roughly 218,000 deaths to COVID-19, but there has been continued criticism that the tally is an undercount. 

The country's statistics agency, Rosstat, publishes monthly data. According to its figures, since April 2020, there have been nearly 600,000 excess deaths and that number is climbing. 

While the virus spread is rampant, vaccination rates are lagging. Across the country, slightly less than 40 per cent of all adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Gogov, which collects vaccination statistics across the country. Slightly more than 40 per cent have one shot.

While Russia's Minister of Health acknowledges the country is in a "very tense" situation, senior Kremlin officials have been reluctant to roll out additional restrictions on a national level. And in the country's capital, municipal officials are opting for more testing sites throughout Moscow instead of introducing new restrictions or stepping up enforcement of the public health measures. 

Wearing a mask on Moscow's metro system is already mandatory, but besides an automatic recording played over the speaker systems thanking people for wearing the masks, there appears to be little enforcement. 

Aminata Alenskaya, who normally resides in Paris but has been living in Moscow for the past 2½ months, said she doesn't wear a mask and took a test that revealed she already had COVID-19 antibodies. (Briar Stewart/CBC )

More than six million passengers pile onto trains or move through the city's historic stations every day, and onboard the metro cars there are plenty of people standing shoulder to shoulder, either not wearing masks or wearing them around their chins. 

Aminata Alenskaya grinned when CBC asked her why she wasn't wearing a mask. 

"I believe in my own body," she said. "It is smart and can protect itself wonderfully."

A few cars down, Nadezhda Laykova, 70, said the metro is the only place where she wears a mask specifically because of the large crowds. Everywhere else, she doesn't bother. 

'You can die from anything'

"It's all in the hands of God. Each one of us has his time," she said. "You can die from anything. A stroke, a heart attack. ... so [why] be afraid of COVID?"

Laykova spoke to CBC while she was riding on a train branded to celebrate the work of doctors and nurses during the pandemic. 

The word "thank you" is scrawled in several different languages across the cars, and there are pictures of health-care workers and a drawing of the coronavirus spike protein with an X through it. 

Officials with the metro system have boasted that the transport authority is No. 1 in the world when it comes to the number of hand sanitizers installed in stations, but just like the seats that are blocked off for distancing but frequently occupied on the trains anyway, most commuters don't pay too much attention.

Moscow's metro system painted a train to honour the work of doctors and nurses during the pandemic. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Back in the spring of 2020, when Moscow was recording a few thousand cases every day, the city ushered in a strict stay at home order, where people could only leave their homes for work, medical appointments or to shop at the nearest grocery store. 

Shopping malls were closed and the federal authorities declared "non-working weeks" in an attempt to get people to stay at home or head to the country and isolate in the dachas. 

As in all other countries, COVID-19 restrictions hit Russia's economy, which was already struggling with low oil prices. 

Unlike other countries that reimposed shutdowns during second and third waves, Russia has prioritized keeping its economy running and is doing so again this time. 

On June 28, 2021, when cases were rising during the third wave, Moscow implemented a QR code system that would only let people dine in restaurants and cafés if they had been vaccinated, had a negative PCR test or had proof they had already been previously infected with COVID-19. 

It was cancelled three weeks later after complaints from the hospitality industry. 

While some smaller regions like Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave situated between Lithuania and Poland, are introducing QR code systems, Moscow isn't, nor is there any push from the federal authorities to do so.

Vaccination lags

In a briefing with some of his top officials on Oct. 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin was told by Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova that the country is on track to exceed 30,000 cases a day. She added that Russia still needs to vaccinate nearly 36 million people and give booster shots to seven million who had their vaccines more than six months ago.

Dr. Andrei Tezhelnikov says that when this Moscow vaccination centre opened in July, as many as 7,000 people passed through each day. (Briar Stewart/CBC )

In mid-September, CBC visited an exhibition centre turned vaccination clinic in Moscow, which at one time saw 7,000 people streaming through a day to get a shot. 

But demand has dwindled, which is why part of the room is now reserved for hosting events while a small section of it remains a vaccination clinic. 

Dr. Andrei Tezhelnikov, head of the clinic, said about five million people have been vaccinated in Moscow, which is about 50 per cent of the adult population. 

He calls that pretty "large coverage," but admits he is still very concerned about the rising cases. 

According to federal officials, only 40 per cent of those 65 and older in Russia have received a shot, and this group has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate. 

Tezhelnikov said some believe they don't need the shot because they think they have already had their virus, while others don't trust the vaccine. 

Sputnik stalled

Russia has four domestically produced vaccines, including Sputnik V. It was unveiled back in August 2020, but still hasn't been approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. 

The WHO said it found some issues with how vials were being filled at one of the country's four production plants, and needed to do additional inspections. 

On Oct. 8, an official with the WHO said it was "slowly solving most of the issues" related to Sputnik, but there is no clear timeframe for when it will be approved by the organization or the European Medical Agency. 

Putin told advisers during a televised roundtable that it helped protect him when dozens of his entourage fell ill.

At the vaccination clinic, CBC spoke to several people who were rolling up their sleeves, including some like Dr. Alexander Susoev, who was getting his third dose. 

Even though he works in health care, he believes vaccination needs to be a personal decision. 

"If [people] are forced ... it will only get worse," he said. "Time will judge who is right."

Dr. Alexander Susoev gets his third shot of Sputnik V at a vaccination centre in Moscow on Sept. 14. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Many areas have made a certain level of vaccination mandatory. In Moscow, for instance, employers in the child-care sector and health-care field must have at least 60 per cent of their staff vaccinated. 

In an effort to boost vaccination rates, Russia is running lotteries and draws to give away cars.

There is also additional help for those who become sick and struggle with the lingering effects of a COVID-19 infection at one of the country's many sanatoriums.

The wellness centres, which offer alternative treatment, flourished during the Soviet era, and many are now catering therapy to COVID-19 patients. 

Post-COVID care

On a sprawling estate in the community of Kineshma, roughly 400 kilometres northeast of Moscow, dozens of patients are receiving rehabilitation treatments, including sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber as part of a 10-day recovery stay that can be completely paid for by the government. 

The Reshma centre, which is located along forested trails near the Volga river, is one of many Russian sanatoriums that offer treatments, many of which the Canadian medical system would consider unproven and not backed up by evidence when it comes to post-COVID care. 

Tatiana Lozhkina, 35, left, speaks to Dr. Yulia Kulikova, the chief doctor of Reshma centre, while getting her back paddled with a vibrating machine. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

In one room, patients wear vibrating vests, which doctors claim help to clear out airways, while in another people lie on tables and receive magnetic therapy, which health-care staff believe can stimulate the cardiovascular system.

Sanatoriums flourished during the Soviet era. The Reshma facility has treated astronauts and workers who responded to the cleanup of the Chornobyl nuclear plant after the accident there in 1986. 

Now, there is a waiting list for the 50 spots in its post-COVID program, and the centre's deputy chief doctor, Dr. Yulia Kulikova, believes the demand is only going to rise because cases are going up and people are putting themselves at risk. 

"We can't force them to wear a mask. We can't force them to sit at home," Kulikova said. "People understand this advice only when it personally affects them or their family members."

Nadezhda Pospelova, 64, left, and her sister Nataliya Solovyova, 61, swim at the Reshma centre in Russia. Both sisters were hospitalized with COVID-19 at the same time and are undergoing post-COVID-19 therapy. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The treatment rooms and hallways are full of such testimonials.

Tatiana Lozhina, 35, was having a machine paddle her lower back. She got COVID-19 in May and had to be hospitalized after having a very high fever and cough. 

Even after her infection cleared, she felt weak and continued coughing, so her doctor recommended going to Reshma for treatment. 

At the centre, she has been having multiple therapy sessions, including one-on-one time with a psychiatrist.

"Before I got sick, I had a very casual approach to COVID. I believed that none of it was real," she said. "If I had known it would be so hard, I would've done everything to prevent it." 

Except potentially get the shot. Even now, five months after her infection, she still isn't sure she ever wants to take a COVID-19 vaccine because she fears getting sick again. 


Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart

With files from Corinne Seminoff

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