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Russia counts cost of missteps, vaccine refusals as COVID tide keeps rising

By Polina Nikolskaya and Maxim Shemetov

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Russia counts cost of missteps, vaccine refusals as COVID tide keeps rising
© Reuters. People stand in a line to receive a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a vaccination centre located at a shopping mall in Oryol, Russia October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

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By Polina Nikolskaya and Maxim Shemetov

ORYOL, Russia (Reuters) – Ambulance attendant Roman Stebakov has come face-to-face with COVID-19 many times – but he’d rather take his chances with the disease than get himself injected with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

“I won’t get vaccinated until, I don’t know, they break me and vaccinate me by force. I don’t see the point in it, there are no guarantees it’s safe,” says the paramedic from Oryol, 300 km (185 miles) south of Moscow.

Outside one of the city’s hospitals, a young woman, Alina, is clutching a bunch of papers certifying her grandmother’s death. The old woman was unvaccinated and died of COVID-19 three weeks after being admitted.

But despite her loss, Alina, 26, says she won’t take the vaccine because she has heard too many scare stories.

“There’s not enough data, not enough checks.”

Their attitudes help explain why the first nation in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine – and then export it to more than 70 countries – is struggling to inoculate its own population and has racked up record 24-hour death tolls on 21 days in the past month.

In conversations with Reuters, doctors and officials reeled off a host of factors that have fed the spread of the disease and forced Russia to revert to its tightest restrictions since the early months of the pandemic.

Besides vaccine hesitancy, they cited mixed messaging from the authorities, inconsistent policies, unreliable statistics and attempts to shift responsibility away from Moscow and on to the leaders of Russia’s republics and regions.

The health ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment for this story.

WAITING IN AMBULANCES

At Oryol’s Botkin Hospital, chief physician Alexander Lyalyukhin traced the origin of the latest and most virulent COVID wave to three weeks after the start of the school year in September. At that point some Russian regions sent students home for remote learning. Oryol, like most others, kept schools open.

The hospital is short of anaesthesists and infectious disease specialists. Most COVID patients need oxygen support and the supply is tight.

“Perhaps because the virus is more aggressive. We sometimes have fewer patients than there were in winter, but they consume more oxygen, by about a third,” Lyalyukhin said.

Ambulance paramedic Dmitry Seregin said patients commonly wait for several hours in ambulances.

“The healthcare system cannot withstand such an influx. This wave is more than twice as strong in terms of the number of cases and the severity of the disease,” he said.

Vladimir Nikolayev, deputy head of the regional health department, told Reuters there were still available beds and patients who needed oxygen were getting it.

“Unfortunately, if we’d carried out active vaccination we might not be in this situation,” he said.

What Oryol is experiencing is typical of the country as a whole. The latest official figures on Monday showed the region ranked 40th out of Russia’s 85 territories for new cases, with 326 in the previous 24 hours, and five new deaths.

As of last week, nearly 38% of people in Oryol had been injected with their first dose, compared with 39.4% nationally.

In Seregin’s view, the low rates are down to official miscommunication about the vaccine. At first authorities said the injection would be good for two years, then they told people it would need renewing after six months, he said.

“Statements appear with different information from the very same people, and these make people distrustful of the state.”

A source who previously worked in the COVID operations centre of one of Russia’s regions said the country had locked down early at the start of the pandemic but then blundered by declaring victory too soon and going ahead with a national referendum in June 2020 on constitutional changes to allow President Vladimir Putin to run for potentially two more terms in office.

“We kind of drew a line on the coronavirus, vaccinations, masks and all the rest of it. And now we have what we have – an insane mountain of corpses,” the source said.

UNRELIABLE DATA

Official figures on the pandemic’s toll vary widely.

As of Monday, cumulative deaths stood at 239,693, according to the national coronavirus task force. The state statistics office puts the figure nearly twice as high, at around 462,000 between April 2020 and September 2021, while Reuters calculated that the number of excess deaths in Russia in the same period was more than 632,000 in comparison with the average mortality rate in 2015-2019.

Some experts say under-reporting of deaths has made people complacent.

“People think what’s the point of me running away from it if it’s no more scary than the flu,” said Elena Shuraeva, head of the Oryol doctor’s trade union.

Her husband Aleksei Timoshenko, a doctor at the COVID hospital, said the picture he sees at work was 6-7 times worse than implied by official figures. “And now people are afraid, they really see that many are getting sick and many are dying,” he said.

All this leaves a dilemma for Putin, who has repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated but said last month that even some of his own friends had delayed doing so.

A source close to the Kremlin said there was evidence that the latest restrictions – which include a nationwide workplace shutdown this week and increasing requirements for people to prove their vaccine status to get access to certain venues – was prompting an increase in take-up. Oryol’s governor Andrei Klychkov said people were being vaccinated three times faster than before.

The source close to the Kremlin said compulsory vaccination was out of the question because it would rebound on the government. “It will be seen as an attack on freedom. And that, you know, could be like a powder keg.”

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U.S. Capitol riot panel promises new evidence at surprise Tuesday hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A video of former U.S President Donald Trump speaking is shown on a screen during the fifth public hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.

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By Richard Cowan and Moira Warburton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. congressional committee plans to reveal new evidence about the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters at a public hearing on Tuesday it hastily announced a mere 24 hours earlier.

The House of Representatives committee, investigating the first attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in U.S. history, declined to answer questions about who might testify or what evidence would be presented.

Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to then-President Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, is expected to testify, several media outlets reported. Representatives of the panel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the reports.

The meeting, announced on Monday, is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET (1700 GMT) on Tuesday.

Testimony at five prior hearings has shown how Trump, a Republican, riled thousands of supporters with false claims that he lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden because of massive voter fraud.

British filmmaker Alex Holder, who spent time filming Trump and his family in the weeks after the election, has in recent days testified before the committee behind closed doors and shared video of his interviews with Trump and his family, according to media reports.

The committee has said it intends to interview Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, following reports she may have been involved in efforts to stop Biden’s victory certification at the Capitol on Jan. 6. She has said she intended to speak to the panel.

U.S. law enforcement last week raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s false fraud claims.

This month’s hearings featured videotaped testimony from figures including Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his former attorney general, Bill Barr. They and other witnesses testified that they did not believe Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud and tried to dissuade him of them.

Dozens of courts, state election officials and reviews by Trump’s own administration rejected his claims of fraud, some of which included outlandish stories about an Italian security firm or the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tampering with U.S. ballots.

Trump, who is publicly flirting with another White House run in 2024, has denied wrongdoing and accused the committee of engaging in a political witch hunt. He has leveled harsh criticism particularly at Representative Liz Cheney, one of just two Republicans on the nine-member committee.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll early this month found that about two-thirds of U.S. Republicans believe Trump’s false election fraud claims.

The committee, sometime next month, is expected to hold one or two hearings on possible coordination of the Jan. 6 attack by right-wing extremist groups.

During the assault on the Capitol, thousands of Trump supporters smashed windows, fought with police and sent lawmakers, including Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, fleeing for their lives.

Four people died the day of the attack, one fatally shot by police and the others of natural causes. More than 100 police officers were injured, and one died the next day. Four officers later died by suicide.

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Rescuers dig for survivors after Russian missiles demolish Ukrainian shopping mall

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© Reuters. Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kremenchuk, in Poltava region, Ukraine June 27, 2022. Picture taken June 27, 2022. REUTERS/Anna Voitenko

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By Simon Lewis

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (Reuters) -Firefighters and soldiers searched on Tuesday for survivors in the rubble of a shopping mall in central Ukraine after a Russian missile strike killed at least 18 people in an attack condemned by the United Nations and the West.

More than 1,000 people were inside when two Russian missiles slammed into the mall in Kremenchuk, about 300 km (200 miles) southeast of the capital Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

At least 18 people were killed and 25 hospitalised, while about 36 were missing, Poltava region governor Dmytro Lunin said.

Zelenskiy, in an overnight video address, called the attack deliberate, saying it was “a calculated Russian strike exactly onto this shopping centre”.

Russia said the incident was caused by a strike on a legitimate military target. Its defence ministry, quoted by the RIA state news agency, said it had fired missiles at a storage depot for Western weapons in Kremenchuk, and the detonation of stored ammunition there had caused the fire at the nearby mall.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told Reuters a missile had also struck a nearby factory, but it was closed and not a military target.

“It’s a question about crimes against humanity,” she said. “I think it’s like systematical shelling of civilian infrastructure – with what aim? To scare people, to kill people to make terror in our cities and villages.”

Relatives of the missing lined up at a hotel across the street where rescue workers set up a base after Monday’s strike.

A survivor receiving treatment at Kremenchuk’s public hospital, Ludmyla Mykhailets, 43, said she was shopping with her husband when the blast threw her into the air.

“I flew head first and splinters hit my body. The whole place was collapsing,” she said.

“It was hell,” said her husband, Mykola, 45, blood seeping through a bandage around his head.

At the scene of the blaze on Tuesday morning, exhausted-looking firefighters sat on a kerb. Oleksandr, wetting his face from a water bottle on a bench, said his team had worked all night picking through the rubble.

“We pulled out five bodies. We didn’t find anybody alive,” he said.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies, at a summit in Germany, said the attack was “abominable”.

“Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account,” they said in a joint statement.

BATTLE FOR LYSYCHANSK

Russia denies intentionally targetting civilians in its “special military operation” which has destroyed cities, killed thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

The U.N. Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, will meet on Tuesday at Ukraine’s request following the attack. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the missile strike was deplorable.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Ukraine endured another difficult day following the loss of the now-ruined city of Sievierodonetsk.

Russian artillery pounded Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk’s twin city across the Siverskyi Donets River. Ukraine said the Russians attempted to storm it.

Lysychansk is the last big city held by Ukraine in eastern Luhansk province, a main target for the Kremlin after Russian troops failed to take Kyiv early in the war.

Eight residents including a child were killed and 21 wounded by shelling when they gathered to get drinking water in Lysychansk on Monday, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Ukrainian forces controlled the city but its loss was possible as Russia poured resources into the fight, he added.

“They really want this and a lot of reserves are being thrown just for this…We do not need to lose an army for the sake of one city,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Rodion Miroshnik, the ambassador to Moscow of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, said Russian troops and their Luhansk Republic allies were advancing westward into Lysychansk and street battles had erupted around the city stadium.

Fighting was going on in several surrounding villages, and Russian and allied troops had entered the Lysychansk oil refinery where Ukrainian troops were concentrated, Miroshnik said on Telegram.

Russia also shelled the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine on Monday, hitting apartment buildings and a primary school, the regional governor said.

The shelling killed five people and wounded 22. There were children among the wounded, the governor said.

During their summit in Germany, G7 leaders vowed to stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and tighten the squeeze on Russia’s finances with new sanctions that include a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil.

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Russia expands U.S. sanctions list to include Biden’s wife and daughter

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden disembark from Marine One as they return from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 5, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Tuesday expanded its U.S. ‘stop-list’, including in it the wife and daughter of President Joe Biden as well as other prominent figures.

The step was taken “as a response to the ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian political and public figures,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

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