The briefing focuses on the current status of the coronavirus epidemic, recommendations regarding New Year’s festivities, coronavirus vaccination during the holidays and suspended flights to the UK.
Question: Ms Popova, the first question, obviously, concerns the coronavirus situation. What is the status as of the end of the year?
Anna Popova: The New Year’s holidays are only a week away. Staying healthy during the holidays is extremely important to us.
What are the epidemiological indicators as of the end of the year? Our daily incidence rate is better than in a number of countries. The daily incidence rate is 18‒19 cases per 100,000 people, which is three, four or five times lower than in the countries with high morbidity and where the number of daily cases is on the rise forcing these countries to take extraordinary measures.
The incidence rate in our country is currently slowing down and the numbers are stable. At the same time, the situation varies from region to region. In some regions, such as the Krasnodar Territory and Tatarstan, the daily incidence rate, calculated as the daily average over a week per 100,000 people, is 2 to 3. There are also regions with the incidence rate over 60. There are not many such regions but the situation there is different and requires special measures.
Throughout November, the number of regions with an average growth rate (which is one of our assessment criteria) over 1 percent, remained between 44 and 50. By the end of November, there was an improvement. The prevalence rate, or the reproduction ratio (Rt), which shows how many people can be potentially infected by one infected person before he or she is isolated, has come down to 1. Currently, this rate is 1 in 77 Russian regions, meaning that further spread is slowing down. Only recently, the number of these regions was only 15 to 20. Now 77 regions have Rt equal to 1, which is another indicator showing that the epidemiological situation in the country is improving.
Question: Ms Popova, could you please remind us what recommendations people
should follow in order to not get ill during the holidays?
Anna Popova: I would like to note that there are living people behind any statistics. And, unfortunately, these people get ill and sometimes severely ill. The main goal before and during the holidays is not to contract this illness and avoid any risks that can affect your health. Therefore, we have developed recommendations that can help people stay safe and not get infected in various circumstances. We have been working hard on these recommendations all year since spring to make it possible for various sectors of the economy to continue operating and for various events to take place. Following these rules and recommendations eliminates health risks. Of course, we realise that it is not possible that during a pandemic there is not a single ill person in a group. But the main purpose of all the measures we propose and develop is to prevent further spread and make sure that morbidity in this group is limited to one ill or infected person.
And we can see that following all our rules carefully does help prevent the spread. Companies continue operating. We completed a summer health improvement campaign when more than a million children visited summer health resorts and there was not a single case of the disease. There were no outbreaks at summer health resorts, which is also a result of meticulously following our rules.
Similar rules were developed for schoolchildren. They were first developed as recommendations for organising teaching process rather than schoolchildren per se. And it should be noted that classroom schooling, which resumed from 1 September (with a few exceptions in special circumstances, when in-person classes were suspended), is, obviously, justified and understandable. In neither of these cases there has been a spread of infectious diseases in schools or in classes. It means that, when followed strictly, these recommendations (or in some places, sanitary regulations) protect people from coming into contact with this virus and getting ill.
We also developed recommendations for the upcoming holidays. These are not requirements. They will be interpreted in each particular region in accordance with the local epidemiological situation. But I will specifically note several aspects.
What do we recommend? We recommend limiting the number of participants of outdoor events to 50 people. This means that outdoor gatherings should not involve too many people. Our task is to make sure that people can’t contract the virus from each other. This is the purpose of these recommendations.
Next. We believe that it would be most efficient and safe to hold public events outdoors rather than indoors. Skating rinks and slides should remain open. It is also important (and the recommendations include this advice) that these leisure and sports centres operate in a manner that allows people to maintain social distance in order to not get infected. Therefore, the number of people using skating rinks and slides should be small enough to prevent close contact. It is the organisers’ task to ensure safety and let people enjoy outdoor activities and use skating rinks and slides. These facilities should remain open but follow safety regulations. Locker rooms or equipment rental offices should not be crowded. Proper organisation of the process guarantees safe and enjoyable time at these outdoor facilities.
Earlier this year, we worked with the business community to develop recommendations for all tourist facilities and these recommendations have been in place up to this day. But we also believe it is necessary to issue additional recommendations for the holiday season. I should repeat that the regulations to prevent the spread of the virus must be strictly followed when organising trips and events. Masks must be worn where necessary. People should maintain social distance. Washing hands and cleaning your skin and surfaces around you, using sanitisers is important. Any travel increases the risks as we are less in control of the situation and ourselves due to distractions. So it is very important to follow all the measures to stay healthy.
I should mention public transport. People will have more free time to move around. We recommend disinfecting surfaces on public transport more frequently than usual because the passenger traffic will be higher. Wearing masks is mandatory on public transport and in public areas.
Shopping centres and stores attract more people before and during the holidays. Additional daily cleaning and disinfection throughout the day and by all means at the end of the workday are mandatory at these facilities.
We recommend that food courts close for complete disinfection every three hours because food courts are where people mingle without masks and the risk of infection is, obviously, higher.
A great number of spa resorts and hotels will be open during the holidays. We recommend organising all festivities and especially crowded events outdoors to lower health risks for guests.
All accommodation facilities must conduct more thorough cleaning and disinfection. After every check-out, rooms must be cleaned using steam generators and special equipment that will make rooms completely safe for next guests.
It is very important to note that the requirement to wear masks in public areas remains in place. It is not a recommendation: it is a requirement. It was introduced by a resolution of the Chief Sanitary Doctor in late October and remains mandatory. People are not required to wear masks elsewhere but indoors, on public transport and at public events masks must be worn.
I should also remind you that in our country, a person may be fined for not wearing a mask in public places. Of course, this money could be more useful somewhere else and could be spent on gifts for the loved ones. Wearing masks where it is required also helps people stay healthy. Therefore, once again, in Russia wearing masks in public areas, indoors and on public transport is mandatory.
In general, the measures we propose are advisory. Every constituent entity will decide whether they should be mandatory depending on the local epidemiological situation. Again, the situation varies from region to region. But wherever a recommendation becomes a requirement, it must be strictly complied with.
So, this is what the new or updated rules are for the holiday season.
Question: Ms Popova, will the work schedule of coronavirus testing laboratories change during the New Year holidays?
Anna Popova: It is very important to understand that medical tests are the main method for detecting patients who are ill or are the source of infection despite their lack of symptoms. I would like to raise the following issue in this connection. Holidays are a high-risk period; consequently, people suffering from any illness or complication have to stay at home, and protect themselves and their families from possible infection. And, of course, they should seek medical assistance. Tests, as well as clinical symptoms, which can be assessed only by doctors, are the main indicators today. All the Rospotrebnadzor laboratories will work overtime during the holidays. We have not only kept their usual working hours, we have extended them, so that everyone will be able to undergo tests in line with medical appointments, so that we will not overlook a single case.
Today, the Russian Federation ranks among the three leading countries in terms of the number of tests per 100,000 of the population. Naturally, we are maintaining this level, and we aim to increase the number of tests and the number of people who have been tested.
Today, 962 laboratories, including 111 Rospotrebnadzor laboratories, 651 laboratories at medical organisations and 200 commercial laboratories, are conducting PCR COVID-19 tests. They will remain open, and this will allow Russian citizens to be screened even during the holidays.
It is very important to note that, quite recently, we required these laboratories to send test results to patients within 48 hours following the receipt of test materials. Most of them are meeting this requirement, and we are keeping a fairly tight control over this process. In the last seven days, almost 99 percent of tests were completed on time. Obviously, some of them were not completed on schedule. One should keep in mind that the 48-hour period starts right after a laboratory has received the test sample and ends after the patient has learned the final result.
There are also test sample delivery deadlines, and we insist that these deadlines be minimised; today, we cooperate with everyone involved in this process. However, some Russian regions are really huge, and a number of them are 3,000 km long, with their remote municipalities and communities lacking permanent communications. Of course, there are some objective reasons here. Unfortunately, we can also see a number of violations. Although they account for just one percent, this amounts to quite a lot. Those guilty of such violations assume administrative responsibility. We consider this to be unacceptable. Our colleagues in Russian regions understand this.
We have a phone-in service for anyone requesting explanations, and we handle many such calls. People complain of unlawful actions or delayed tests in certain laboratories, regardless of their form of ownership. Telephone numbers are posted on the websites of regional Rospotrebnadzor directorates and on our website, too.
A joint Rospotrebnadzor call centre has been operating for quite a long time, and I believe that its telephone number has long been well-known to many people: 8 (800) 555-49-43.
Since January 2020, our call centre has handled almost 3.5 million different requests, linked with the coronavirus pandemic. It will function 24 hours a day over the entire holiday season. People can call anytime and request assistance or demand that something be done at regional level.
If you allow me, I would like to say a few words about the situation that has been developing since Saturday night, 19 December, when a new virus strain was detected. I believe that this is important. This information caused numerous alarmed responses and discussions. Here is an update on the situation. We are closely following the publications of our colleagues in the United Kingdom and other European Union countries. We keep tabs on the virus situation all over the Russian Federation. The reference centre of the Vektor Research Centre, which is listed by the World Health Organisation as a diagnostic centre, monitors the pathogen of the new coronavirus infection and has every reason to say that an extensive survey of viruses in all Russian regions shows that this mutation has not been detected anywhere in Russia so far.
We know for sure that Russian vaccines, which have a structure that includes conservative and virtually unchanged coronavirus protein sections, are also effective against this virus strain that is now being so actively discussed in the world. And I can only welcome all those who have already been vaccinated or those who are planning to do this on New Year’s Eve or during the holiday season because all vaccination centres will be open. I believe that this decision is quite correct. The Russian Federation ranks among those few countries providing this opportunity, and people should use this chance, no matter what.
Regarding the new virus strain, we are following the EU response closely. Although they have been conferring for the past few days, no official position has been voiced so far. We are following comments by the World Health Organisation and its Regional Office for Europe.
Today, they are holding a meeting on this matter at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. A decision was made to suspend air traffic to and from the United Kingdom, as long as the discussion is underway, and while colleagues are looking for an optimal solution. This preventive measure aims to protect the health of the people of the Russian Federation. We will decide on subsequent action after reaching a full understanding. In the meantime, this measure remains in force and facilitates the safety of the population of the Russian Federation.
I would like to note before the New Year that health is, of course, the best gift. This year was rather complicated, and it is very important that people comply with all the recommendations and requirements that we have been mentioning for almost 12 months, in order to remain healthy.
I would like to sincerely wish my dear fellow Russian citizens a Happy New Year and also wish them health, prosperity and well-being. Please stay healthy and improve your health. Happy New Year!