Moscow shuts most workplaces as infections, deaths soar

Health Minute

A medical worker administers a shot of Russia’s Sputnik Lite coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in the GUM, State Department store, in Red Square with the Spasskaya Tower in the background, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. The daily number of COVID-19 deaths in Russia hit another high Tuesday amid a surge in infections that forced the Kremlin to order most Russians to stay off work starting this week. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow city authorities on Thursday ordered most people to stay off work for at least 11 days to stem coronavirus infections, as new daily cases and deaths from COVID-19 in Russia surged to all-time highs.

The government’s coronavirus task force reported 1,159 deaths in 24 hours, the largest daily tally since the pandemic began. The official death toll from the pandemic, by far the highest in Europe, now stands at 235,057. But the state statistics agency, which tallies deaths more broadly, has reported about 418,000 COVID-19 related deaths as of Aug. 1.

Either way, it puts Russia among the worst-hit nations in the world during the pandemic.

To slow the spread of the virus, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a nonworking period from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, when most state organizations and private businesses are to suspend operations. He encouraged Russia’s worst-hit regions to start sooner, and some ordered most residents off work earlier this week.

Moscow followed Thursday, shutting kindergartens, schools, gyms, entertainment venues and most stores, and restricting restaurants and cafes to only takeout or delivery. Food stores, pharmacies and companies operating key infrastructure remained open.

Access to museums, theaters, concert halls and other venues is limited to people holding digital codes on their smartphones to prove they have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, a practice that will remain in place after Nov. 7.

Putin also instructed local officials to close nightclubs and other entertainment venues, and ordered unvaccinated people older than 60 to stay home.

The number of new daily cases in Russia rose by 40,096 on Thursday, topping a previous record reached earlier this week. The government hopes keeping most people out of offices and public transportation could curb the spread, but many Russians quickly sought to take advantage of the surprise time off for a seaside vacation.

Plane ticket sales soared to southern Russia, Egypt and Turkey, prompting authorities in southern Russia to quickly shut down entertainment venues and limit access to restaurants and bars.

Authorities have blamed the surging contagion and deaths on Russia’s lagging pace of vaccinations. Only about 49 million Russians — about a third of the country’s nearly 146 million people — are fully vaccinated.

Russia was the first country in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine in August 2020, proudly naming the shot Sputnik V to showcase the country’s scientific prowess. But the vaccination campaign has slumped amid widespread public skepticism blamed on conflicting signals from authorities.

Putin has deplored Russians’ vaccine hesitancy.

“There are just two options for everyone — to get sick, or receive a vaccine,” he said last week.

Regional officials have made shots mandatory for certain categories of workers, but Putin rejected proposals to make them compulsory for everyone.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that authorities would continue efforts to persuade Russians to get inoculated until collective immunity is achieved.

“This is an ongoing campaign that must and is being carried out on a permanent basis,” Peskov said. “We need to persuade everyone.”

Asked if the Kremlin might eventually make vaccines mandatory, Peskov said only that authorities would closely monitor the numbers.

“We will see how the situation evolves,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “For now, the numbers don’t give grounds for optimism.”

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