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In Ukraine’s Odessa, summer crowds ditched their masks. It’s now a hot spot in Europe’s ‘second wave.’

Members of an ice swimmers club hold placards on the beach during a protest in March against coronavirus restrictions in Odessa, Ukraine. (Yulii Zozulia/Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Odessa taxi driver Igor Trofimchuk arranged a special trip to celebrate the 82nd birthday of his mother, Nina, near their home in the Ukrainian Black Sea resort city: two nostalgic days at the Soviet-era Zatoka Sanatorium on the sandy beach.

It was crowded. No one wore masks.

But, like most people they know, they also scoffed at warnings about the dangers of the novel coronavirus. In his cab, Trofimchuk would don a mask only if the passenger was wearing one.

Within three weeks of the birthday beach stay in mid-August, his mother — a healthy woman who visited a gym every other day — was dead of covid-19, and he had double pneumonia caused by the virus.

Odessa’s unbridled summer has ushered in a spike in cases across Ukraine — another European hot spot as coronavirus infections flare again in areas across the continent. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it the beginning of a “second wave.”

Tracking the pandemic around the world

Health officials have traced some of the new outbreaks to summer holiday spots where pandemic precautions were often cast aside. But few have produced such a worrisome ripple as Odessa, where vacationers have flocked since Soviet times for beaches, lively cafes along cobbled Derybasivska Street and nighttime parties in the Arcadia district.

More than 12,000 coronavirus cases have been registered in the Odessa region, two-thirds of them tourists and visitors, some of whom took the virus back to the capital, Kyiv, and other places. 

New spikes

Ukraine’s peak of 1,109 new confirmed cases in a single day in June has been smashed by recent daily increases to more than 3,800 cases, taking the country’s total to more than 196,600, including more than 11,000 infections among children.

European countries such as Spain (14,389 new cases Sept. 18), France (16,096 new cases Thursday), Britain (6,634 new cases Thursday) and the Netherlands (2,777 new cases Friday) have seen record daily increases recently.

Moscow authorities on Friday warned people over 65 not to go out as new confirmed daily cases in Russia rose above 7,000 for the first time since June. Eight Moscow hospitals were reconfigured to deal with the resulting surge of covid-19 cases.

The dramatic spikes in Europe also serve as potential warnings for U.S. authorities struggling with the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak while also trying to reopen places such as resorts, universities and some sports venues.

Odessa physician Ivan Chernenko, 27, said almost everyone in the city ignored advice on masks and social distancing as the summer crowds swelled.

“Apparently, masks and social distancing don’t fit the holiday mood,” he said. “The attitude of the people is that there simply are not precautions. People are buying and selling, all without masks. The nightclubs are packed to maximum capacity.” 

The response from cabbie Trofimchuk: “Of course everyone was without masks, like us.”

“All this time before we got sick, we didn’t believe anything that was said about covid-19. We thought it was a lie,” he said. “People only believe it when they or someone they know becomes sick or, worse, dies.

“If people take precautions,” he added, “they’re laughed at.”

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To Trofimchuk and his mother, drinking cold water in summer or taking ice in their drinks posed a greater risk of sickness, according to common beliefs in this part of the world.

So when his mother started to feel ill, she blamed the glass of cold water she had drunk.

No 'holiday' for virus

Ukraine’s health minister, Maksim Stepanov, said covid-19 cases in Odessa surged tenfold from the beginning of summer to early September.

“On the beaches of Odessa, you would not have known there was a pandemic in Ukraine, because you could count on one hand the people who kept a social distance,” he said. “The situation was the same in the city itself.”

Almost nobody followed the country’s health recommendations, he said.

“For some reason, people decided that if they are on vacation, then the virus is also on holiday,” Stepanov said.

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Odessa’s hospital system was swiftly overwhelmed.

For the taxi driver Trofimchuk and his mother, their first stirrings of illness quickly turned into a nightmare: long queues, false-negative test results, huge delays for hospital admission. And a bizarre requirement that he call an ambulance for his dying mother, even though they were already at the hospital.

They had walked there. But she could not be admitted because they came on foot.

As his mother lay on a bench, he called an ambulance, which took 40 minutes.

They were taken to another hospital, where there was a long queue, and then to a third hospital, where they were told she could not be admitted because of a problem with the ambulance documentation.

“My mom, who by then couldn’t walk, was forced to wait outside until I fixed the problem,” he said. “She was ready to go home to die. Only after waiting a long time, from 1 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., was my mother taken to the ICU.”

The intesive care unit’s deputy chief, who was in charge, did not work at night. There were not enough ventilators for patients, hospital volunteers told him.

When Trofimchuk came back the next morning, he saw many weeping people whose relatives had died in the ICU overnight. His mother died the following day.

“If I could change anything, I would never have gone for vacation to a place with so many people,” he said.

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Then again, he said, he could have been infected in his taxi while driving tourists around. His pneumonia has put him in an infectious-diseases hospital.

Alexandr Malin, owner of the popular beachfront hotel Portofino in Odessa’s Arcadia district, said staffers wore masks and restaurateurs tried to ensure social distancing, but Odessa’s beaches were packed all summer. He said many restaurateurs ignored a government restriction prohibiting restaurants operating after 11 p.m.

He said he knows many people who have fallen ill or died of the virus, “but it’s hard to determine exactly where a person got infected.”

Yekaterina Nozhevnikova, an Odessa activist, said she sounded the alarm as early as March on the need to equip the city’s hospitals for the pandemic.

“The number of hospitalized people has grown exponentially,” said Nozhevnikova, who volunteers with the nongovernmental organization Corporation of Monsters, which provides humanitarian assistance to needy people. “Tourists believe that there is no quarantine. The sun is sunny. So tourists and Odessans are all careless. They do not keep their distance from others. They don’t wear masks.”

“The sad thing,” she added, “is that they go home carrying the virus, putting more people at risk.”

In May, said Chernenko, the doctor, authorities implemented firm restrictions that everyone followed, but then they balked at public discontent.

“There is virtually no control now,” he said.

Dixon reported from Moscow.

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