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Family Wants Russian Hospital Investigated For Its Handling Of COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Do we know the full story of how the pandemic has affected Russia? The country that once pretended it had largely escaped the coronavirus now faces questions about its death toll. Russia has reported the third most cases of COVID in the world but only a small fraction of the number of deaths in the leading nations, the United States and Brazil. NPR's Charles Maynes reports on one victim who was not counted.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Aida Mukhutdinova (ph) began having problems with her blood pressure last March. So when doctors referred the 51-year-old to the Kuvatov Republican Clinical Hospital, the family was thrilled, says her daughter Snezhana RaKhiimova (ph).

SNEZHANA RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: After all, the hospital was the best in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, a mostly Muslim republic in central Russia, tucked near the Ural Mountains. But as soon as her mother checked in for treatment, says Snezhana, things seemed off.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Aida noticed lots of patients who seemed sick, feverish. And later, just as she was about to be released back home, she found out why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: On the evening of April 6, local media announced an elderly patient who died in the hospital had tested positive for COVID-19. With other cases suspected, authorities ordered the hospital sealed off, with all 1,200 staff and patients, and Snezhana's mother, Aida, inside. Her mother's roommate had a fever and a cough.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Aida said hospital staff lacked protective gear beyond basic scrubs and a mask. It wasn't like they show on TV, her mother told Snezhana. In fact, doctors had been saying much the same for weeks.

RIMMA KAMALOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Rimma Kamalova, the staff's chief rheumatologist reached by NPR during the hospital's quarantine, said the administration ignored staff concerns that the growing loads of pneumonia patients in March might be infected with COVID-19.

KAMALOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "The hospital administration let patients keep coming and going for weeks, and they spread the disease throughout the republic," she said.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: On April 12, Snezhana says her mother was notified she'd tested positive for COVID-19. Soon, Aida's temperature spiked, and she had trouble breathing. A CT scan showed the virus had invaded her lungs.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "She called me and was so scared," says Snezhana. "She wanted to live." Her mother was put on a ventilator April 17 but died five days later, just as the quarantine ended.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: The day she went to retrieve her mother's body, Snezhana says the sky was gray with sleet and rain falling into the hole made by gravediggers in Moonsuits at the local cemetery. Her mother, or what she was told was her mother, lay in a thick black plastic sack that kept the family from cleaning the body according to Muslim tradition.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We're not even sure it was her," she says.

KAMALOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In the weeks that followed, Rimma Kamalova, the rheumatologist, and other hospital staff publicly appealed to the Kremlin for an outside investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: They want to know why the hospital administration kept admitting patients despite staff concerns. When did they first detect the coronavirus? And why wasn't protective gear in place?

UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESPERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: A spokeswoman for the republic's Health Ministry tells NPR it's conducting its own review of the lockdown but that local authorities see the quarantine as a success. Caseloads in Bashkortostan have leveled off. Life is slowly getting back to normal, but not for Snezhana and her family. And they have their own questions about the quarantine, about testing and about why after her mother died with COVID-19 the republic's official death count remained unchanged.

RAKHIIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It's a cover-up, says Snezhana. The hospital administration just wants to show their bosses they have the outbreak under control. Because Snezhana knows that of the more than 5,000 people listed as victims of the coronavirus in Russia, 51-year-old Aida Mukhutdinova, a grandmother of two who cooked at her local school, is not among them.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "WE WELCOME TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.