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Ukraine's Health Minister Talks Coronavirus and Measures Taken
2 March, 2020

Ukraine has just reported its first coronavirus case.

How will coronavirus be treated in Ukraine? Is the country ready to deal with the issue? What drugs are currently used to treat the Chinese coronavirus?

READ MORE: Ukraine Reports First Coronavirus Case

Prior to the news about the first case, we spoke with Zoryana Skaletska, Ukraine's Health Minister, who is currently in Novi Sanzhary in observation with Ukrainians and some foreign citizens evacuated from China, to get some answers.

How are you feeling? When will you be leaving “observation”? How are the people who were evacuated from China feeling who are currently there with you?

Medical workers carried out trimetric screening, they do medical rounds where they check patients’ health and talk to them. There were no complaints of acute respiratory viral infections. One of the people has her birthday today. Most of us are in a good mood. The sun is out. I am working. I have quite a lot of work and many interviews. Journalists are really keen to talk. So I do have a lot of intensive work.

As far as I know, evacuees from China signed an agreement that they can't talk to the press. If it’s true, can you clarify? How did they react to the initial reception in Novi Sanzhary? Have psychologists spoken to them?

From day one, everyone was told they can speak to psychologists over the phone if they needed it. As of today, nobody asked for this help. Everything here is according to plan: food is provided, medicine for those who need it. The general mood is calm, there are no people outside protesting. It’s been like that for over a week. When I spoke to the Ukrainian evacuees, they said unlike the situation with quarantine in China, here everything is clear for them. We still need to wait until the end of the day on Wednesday, and if all the tests are negative, everyone can be home on Thursday. It’s an obvious thing. In reality, everyone has a positive mood.

READ MORE: Ukraine Says It Has a Plan to Prevent Entry of Coronavirus

Is Ukraine ready for the appearance of coronavirus because we know a case has already been detected in Belarus and Azerbaijan? To what extent is Ukraine prepared: we know about seven hospitals in Kyiv where people with suspicion of coronavirus can be hospitalized. What’s it like in the regions? Are hospitals ready there?

From the end of January, we’ve held several health ministry field offices where we decided that each region needs to monitor its hospitals and determine which hospitals will admit patients with suspected coronavirus. We have a nationally approved plan dated February 3 for all the regions. Each region needed to have its own plan. The national plan stipulates training for doctors so that they are prepared to receive patients with suspected coronavirus. 

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Chernivtsi: What We Know, How to Protect Yourself, And Is Ukraine Prepared

We have been working on this throughout Ukraine for over a month: informing, instructing, consulting. We are constantly monitoring our readiness. We are employing all the resources we can both centrally and locally.

At a recent training for doctors in Kyiv [Mayor Vitaliy] Klitschko said that systems to test for coronavirus within 40 minutes will soon be installed. How are such systems meant to work? 

It means express tests can be bought from hospitals to end suspicion. If the result is positive, people then will be sent for a retest at a laboratory. But since we understand that most suspicions we had during the last month, especially with people returning from China testing for different types of flu and coronavirus, we discovered it wasn’t the coronavirus. Carrying out such express tests in hospitals enables us to determine negative results faster so that hospitals can be spared having to wait for the results.

READ MORE: Ukraine Health Minister to Join Wuhan Evacuees In Quarantine Following Local Protests

How is testing done now? We have journalists working in Donbas: border guards check people for fever. Ambulances are called and people are taken to hospital if fever is detected. How are coronavirus tests done? Are tests sent to Kyiv?

It is up to hospital medical workers to determine.

Do they have the equipment to test in regions or are tests first sent to Kyiv?

As of today, hospitals don’t have express tests. They test for flu first — hospitals do have these tests. But if flu tests are negative, then the materials are sent to a laboratory in Kyiv.

What currently happens in airports and planes because there was a coronavirus suspicion in a woman who traveled from Italy. Obviously, we don’t have the full information yet, but if there is a case of fever at an airport? Are others on the plane checked, tested or sent for observation too?

That’s exactly what happens at airports. Experts carry out fever screening at sanitary points too. If fever is detected, others who were proven to have been in contact with that person or if they were in contact with people in other countries or came from such a country, they are sent to the hospital, they have their samples withdrawn and their contact details are taken so that they can be informed if the person they were in contact with tested positive. These people will be informed of the need to see a doctor or might even be isolated for four days.

READ MORE: What Life Amid Coronavirus Outbreak is Like, According to These Ukrainians

Where are these express tests available in Ukraine? How many are there? Regional doctors have said and one wrote to us that their hospitals have seen an increase in cases of flu aggravating to pneumonia. They fear it might be coronavirus, but they don’t have the tests and thus can’t check.

All medical workers have regional bodies to turn to — there is no need to look for information on Facebook. It is the question of professional behavior. Any medical worker has to behave the same whatever symptoms patients have in the hospital. The same actions need to be taken to prevent the infection from spreading in the building. Measures must be taken whether it’s coronavirus or any other virus. Proper conduct is expected in regards to any patient admitted to the hospital. 

But in most cases in Ukraine when patients come to hospitals with fever, they are diagnosed with flu.

Different countries have employed very serious approaches with regard to the coronavirus: mass events have been canceled. In Ukraine, we have only witnessed daily disinfection of public transport. Is this an adequate preventative measure, is it effective?

I want our citizens and journalists to not just use information, but also critical thinking to find out what situation is in each country and match the measures taken. In countries like Italy, where numerous cases have been detected and many of these people were in contact with others, it is important to implement restrictive measures, such as cancellation of mass events and closure of schools since it’s a different level of epidemic threat; that is countries where the virus has already been transmitted inside. Not a single positive case has been registered in Ukraine. All our measures are preventive within the limits of the epidemic threat we have today. If the situation changes, new respective measures will be taken too. 

After the protests in Novi Sanzhary and other Ukrainian cities. the health ministry was accused of bad communication: that people knew little about the coronavirus. Have you learned a lesson? Have you changed your communication strategy? Will you be more open?

Our openness is the same, it hasn’t changed. We have been informing on a daily basis. But the weight of media has changed as it spreads more information to people and becomes more interested. Alas, before that, people were manipulated, media was not as interested and did not help to explain the level of threat to the people. Social networks played their part too. In my opinion, the social responsibility of media has changed today. Together we can convey this information better. From the first day of health ministry field offices, we held daily briefings for journalists, press conferences in the Cabinet, daily updates on the ministry’s website. We have been open, we have even had information for travelers from the end of January as to how to behave in Asia. Nowadays, we also have video clips and infographics and more attention from the media with regard to the dissemination of information to calm the public.

A lot of the comments on Facebook have been about distrust to the health ministry. Will the ministry take steps to regain trust?

The health ministry will do the work it was created for i.e. organization of medical assistance within healthcare providers of different ownership in Ukraine — so that Ukrainian citizens have access to quality and timely medical assistance.