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Russia sees 2 days of surging COVID-19 cases as testing ramps up

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Moscow — Russia has reported a dramatic spike in the number of new coronavirus cases for two days in a row, with 10,581 confirmed on Monday alone. That's a 70% increase in new daily cases from one week ago.

The total number of infections now stands just over 145,000, making Russia's the seventh-largest outbreak in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Since mid-April, Russia has surpassed China, Iran and Turkey. Almost half of the new cases have been recorded in Moscow, which remains the worst hotspot in the country, with 74,401 patients.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin says the surge in confirmed infections is largely down to a significant increase in testing over the last few days. The number of tests carried out has doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 per day in Moscow, he said Saturday.

Sobyanin conceded that the real number of cases is likely much higher than the statistics reveal. He estimated that 2% of Moscow's 12.7 million residents have been infected already. The capital is preparing to make 10,000 more hospital beds available by re-purposing several facilities, including sports arenas, exhibition centers, park pavilions and shopping malls.

Medical specialists work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients at a hospital in Moscow
Medical specialists work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients at a hospital in Moscow, Russia, in a handout picture released on May 3, 2020.  Sofya Sandurskaya/Moscow News Agency/REUTERS

Health experts broadly agree the growth in the number of cases can be explained in large part by the expanded testing for the virus, but also by people's general disregard for social distancing guidelines.

Guzel Ulumbekova, a public health expert, tells CBS News that while Russia was processing about 100,000 tests daily 10 days ago, "now it is between 170,000 and 180,000."

Professor and virologist Anatoly Altstein agrees that increased testing could be a major factor in the spiking number of registered cases, and says the next several days should provide a clearer picture.

"The system of testing doesn't change every day," Altstein says, explaining that if the daily infection rate remains roughly the same for the next few days that will suggest the situation has stabilized. "If it continues to grow steadily, then it's not just the testing."

The number of deaths in Russia relative to confirmed cases has remained relatively low compared to many other hard-hit countries, including the U.S.

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The official death toll on Monday stood at just under 1,360, with 76 new deaths registered over the past 24 hours.

"Everyone is surprised," Altstein said of Russia's death rate among confirmed coronavirus patients. One widespread opinion among experts, he said, is that the outbreak hit Russia later than many other countries, giving it's medical infrastructure time to prepare. Others note that, in the beginning, Russia attributed many deaths that were likely COVID-19-related to other factors, keeping the official mortality numbers low.

Last week, Russia's prime minister, construction minister and one of his deputies were hospitalized after testing positive for the virus. It has also been spreading among medical professionals, who have been under enormous pressure as hospitals fill up in the big cities. Some have complained of being forced to work despite a shortage of personal protective equipment.

The Kremlin has extended a business shutdowns and lockdown measures until May 11, and officials have indicated that any steps to ease the restrictions will depend on the situation in each region.

Moscow's mayor recently hinted that authorities might have to cut the number of special travel permits issued for residents to use public transport, ostensibly to make essential trips, if the situation worsens.

Moscow's police, meanwhile, have warned they could use helicopters and drones to prevent people gathering in public parks. 

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