“I Started Talking About Coronavirus in January” - Ukrainian Doctor Treating Coronavirus Patients
31 March, 2020

Olha Kobevko, a doctor from the western Ukrainian region of Chernivtsi, was one of the first medical professionals in the country to speak out about the need to take measures against the coronavirus in January. Now Ukraine has 549 confirmed cases, and 13 people are dead. We asked Kobevko how medical care works in her region, which, with 90 confirmed cases, is at the forefront of Ukraine’s fight against the disease. 

This interview was recorded on March 19.

How are you working now and what’s the situation in the Chernivtsi region?

I started talking about the coronavirus back in January. This wasn’t so much a statement about the virus but about the readiness of the medical service. I’ve been through more than one epidemic since 2009, and I know the reality in which the infectious disease agency lives in right now in Ukraine, and particularly in the Chernivtsi region. That’s why I made this message, based on the experience of Wuhan and the experiences of other countries.

When the virus began to spread, I felt the need to make these statements (in social networks – ed.). And I’ve already received several reprimands for it. Even today I was reprimanded, that these kinds of statements seem wrong to the leadership and our management.

As for the situation in the Chernivtsi region: we do in fact have several medical facilities where we’re treating these patients. The main facility is the infectious disease ward of the regional clinical hospital, where we have adult patients, as well as the infectious disease ward of the children’s hospital, because they also already have patients there. 

How scared are doctors? Is there protective equipment in order to work in an infectious situation?

We’re now more equipped than in the beginning. All of the patients are receiving treatment within the framework of the lists allowed by the Ministry of Health and the capabilities of the ward. They’re all absolutely receiving free treatment, both those who are only suspected of having coronavirus, and those who have confirmed cases. That’s why we have less problems with this for now. But still some problems remain, despite the insistence of several people who are more worried about keeping their jobs than about the patients.

The doctors and medical personnel themselves have personal protective equipment (PPE) – precisely the kind advocated by the World Health Organization, that is, we’re using specialized respirators which have an FFP3 level of defense, protective goggles, overalls, and gloves. All medical personnel in contact with these patients are wearing this.

We’ve so far isolated an entire wing of the building. That means there’s no access, and we even fenced off the territory. This territory, of the infectious disease ward, cannot be reached by any random passersby. There’s even a police checkpoint to keep the order. 

Do you have any special documents to enter the hospital? How are doctors checked?

There’s six of us, including the department head. The police checkpoint knows us. They know who’s on call when, our names, and they have our mobile phone numbers, because they’re serving with us 24 hours a day. And if something happens, they call us, or we call them. So far we haven’t had any incidents, it’s been absolutely calm. People understand, they’re being conscientious. 

How are you speaking to each other? There are six of you, keeping 1 meter away from each other, everyone’s in PPE – how does it all work?

I’ve posted photos [to my Facebook] page. We’re really all identical, in blue coveralls, goggles, and respirators. Our overalls are signed, and all the doctors sign their names – the date and hour when we put it on – so that we’re regulating the time. 

We also talk to patients: they need to hear us and understand who they’re talking to. And we’ve become acquainted with the patients – they’re used to us. I hope that they can recognize us by our eyes and voices. There haven’t been any problems in that regard.

 Photo: Presented to hromadske

Are the patients avoiding panic? Because there’s a lot of panic because of the coronavirus. How do the patients feel psychologically and how do they act?

Positively in general. We’re trying to fill, in addition to everything else, the role of a psychologist. Because right now we’re restricted – no related specialists can come to relieve us. That’s why we’re trying to keep a positive mood among the people, because those who have already received a positive result on their [coronavirus] test understand how things are going. They see what sort of negative things are happening out in the world. But we haven’t had any problems in the ward for now.

Some people have a predilection for conspiracy theories. We see that there are deaths from pneumonia, and that we had these cases before the coronavirus. Do you believe that it was in fact the infection?

We haven’t had any cases like that.

To go back to 2009, when we were working in the flu pandemic situation, then we also had something similar. Right now it’s a bit different, even harder I would say, but for us the flu and pneumonia today is much easier – in connection to the fact that we have specialized fast diagnostics for flu, we have express tests, and specific tests just for the flu. And in addition we have specialized treatment for the flu.

Even if a person suspects that they have pneumonia because of a viral infection, and if we suspect the flu, then we immediately start giving them specialized medicines that have a very positive effect. Today, we have a lot less lethal cases than in 2009. We’re even less worried about this now. It’s a lot easier to work because we have this special treatment.

The first coronavirus test is not a guarantee that the person is not infected. That’s why right now we’re paying special attention to this. We’re always waiting for a second result... That’s why we try to explain to people who receive a first negative result that they need to wait for a second negative result in order for us to 100% confirm that this person is not infected. 

/Interview by Anastasia Stanko

/Translated by Romeo Kokriatski

For all the latest updates on the coronavirus in Ukraine, follow this link.