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Three Russian Frontline Health Workers Mysteriously Fell Out Of Hospital Windows

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To Russia now, where cases of COVID-19 are growing. A government task force says more than 177,000 people are infected. That's more than 11,000 new cases in the last 24 hours - a record one-day increase. It's putting tremendous strain on Russia's health workers. And on top of that, an unsettling pattern - three separate incidents in which health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus fight have mysteriously fallen out of hospital windows. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes reports.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The first fall took place April 24 in a town just outside Moscow. Dr. Natalia Lebedeva, the head of a local ER unit, reportedly threw herself from her hospital's window after she contracted COVID-19 and authorities accused her of spreading the virus among staff. The hospital labeled her death an unfortunate accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Next came Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. The local TV news said Yelena Nepomnyashchaya, the head of a local veterans hospital, died from injuries sustained after falling from her fifth-floor office. Other media reports said the region's health ministry had been pressuring her to convert part of the facility into a COVID-19 infection ward despite the hospital lacking appropriate protective equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS NEMIK: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The region's health minister, Boris Nemik, insisted to local media that those discussions never took place. And then there's the case of Alexander Shulepov, an ambulance medic in Voronezh, a day's drive from Moscow.

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ALEXANDER SHULEPOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: This is Shulepov together with a co-worker in a video they posted online. Wearing light medical masks and speaking outside of their ambulance, the two say they're being forced to continue working by the hospital administration despite Shulepov having tested positive for COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SHULEPOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And here, Shulepov again - this time alone - in a later video address from the hospital's infection wing, only this time an apology. He says his original claim about being forced to work - all that wasn't true.

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SHULEPOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "I was just being emotional after getting my test results," he says. Five days later, he was found outside on the ground still alive but with a fractured skull. The hospital administration says he was likely smoking by a second-story window.

Whether suicide attempts or foul play, the incidents have highlighted the campaign of pressure against health workers, particularly those who speak out. Some have been threatened by job loss, others with prosecution for raising the alarm about medical staff getting sick with COVID-19 because of the lack of proper gear. But the biggest price has been paid by health workers who've died from the virus. While no official statistics exist, a group of doctors has taken to publishing the list in memory of fallen colleagues. It's currently at 113, and no one doubts that number will grow.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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