Russian hospital fires prompt investigation into ventilators

Health

Russian Emergency Situation workers attend the scene of a fire at St. George Hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. A fire at St. George Hospital has killed five coronavirus patients. Russian emergency officials said all five had been put on ventilators. The emergency officials told the state Tass new agency the fire broke out in an intensive care unit and was put out within half an hour. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian health officials on Tuesday announced an investigation into the safety of ventilators at two hospitals, where fires in intensive care units for coronavirus patients killed a total of six people over the past four days.

The deaths occurred as Russia struggled to cope with its growing coronavirus caseload, which on Tuesday exceeded 232,000 confirmed infections and has put a strain on the country’s vastly outdated health care infrastructure.

President Vladimir Putin has boasted about Russia’s response to the outbreak, saying that a six-week lockdown helped “slow down the epidemic” and gave the government enough time to prepare the health care system for the worst-case scenario.

“Every region is ready and has everything it needs to help people that might suffer from severe complications, and offer them specialized medical care, including intensive care,” Putin said Monday, announcing gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and reopening of the country’s businesses.

A fire Tuesday morning at St. George Hospital in St. Petersburg killed five coronavirus patients who were on ventilators. On Saturday, another fire broke out in the Spasokukotsky Hospital in Moscow and killed one patient. Both hospitals have been recently repurposed for treating coronavirus patients and in both, faulty ventilators were reported to have caused the fire.

Dr. Valery Strizheletsky, head of St. George Hospital, said a ventilator in an ICU caught fire right in front of another doctor. According to media reports, the brand new Russian-made breathing machine was installed in the unit just 10 days ago.

This particular model had never been used in the hospital before, some reports said. The Associated Press hasn’t been able to independently verify it. Strizheletsky and his deputy, Dr. Igor Ivanov, were unavailable for comments on Tuesday. The ventilator that caught fire in Spasokukotsky Hospital in Moscow was made at the same factory, the state news agency Tass reported, citing unnamed sources in law enforcement.

The factory in the Sverdlovsk region in the Russian Urals is owned by the state-controlled Rostech corporation, run by longtime Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

Russia’s state health care watchdog, Rossdravnadzor, said in a statement Tuesday it was looking into “the quality and the safety” of ventilators that are being used in both hospitals.

Doctors in hospitals outside cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have been regularly complaining about shortages of ventilators or their quality.

“I have been in these situations myself several times: a patient is on a ventilator, then suddenly there’s an electricity spike, and the ventilator turns off,” Dr. Tatyana Revva, an intensive care specialist at a hospital in Kalach-on-Don, a small town in southwestern Russia, told The Associated Press.

“These ventilators we have, they’re 20 years old,” said Revva, who made national headlines after publicly complaining about shortages of protective gear and outdated equipment in her hospital.

Last month, Russian lawmaker Grigory Anikeyev donated 50 ventilators to a hospital in Vladimir, a small city east of Moscow, that turned out to be outdated by 15 years. Around the same time, two more hospitals in Vladimir reported receiving a total of 47 ventilators from the same expired batch.

However, according to the Russian government, the country’s hospitals have enough ventilators to deal with the growing number of coronavirus patients. Putin said Monday that only “a small fraction” of Russia’s ventilator stockpile is currently being used.

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