MOSCOW – Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has been hospitalized with the coronavirus, the latest in a series of setbacks for President Vladimir Putin as Russia struggles to contain the growing outbreak.
“Yes, I’ve gotten sick. I’m being treated," Peskov, a key Putin aide, told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday.
Also infected was Peskov's wife, Olympic ice dancing champion Tatyana Navka. She told reporters that Peskov's condition was “satisfactory” and that the couple decided to enter the hospital so as not to expose the rest of their family.
“He brought it (the virus) from work," Navka was quoted as saying by the Daily Storm online outlet.
Peskov, 52, has been Putin’s spokesman since 2008 but began working him with in the early 2000s.
The Tass news agency quoted Peskov saying he last saw Putin in person “more than a month ago.”
Reporters from the Kremlin pool said on Twitter that Peskov was last seen in public on April 30 at a meeting with Putin. It was not clear whether the two were in the same room because Putin has been conducting his meetings via teleconference in recent weeks from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow.
Peskov is not the only top government official to come down with the coronavirus. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin revealed April 30 that he had tested positive for the virus. The next day, Construction and Housing Minister Vladimir Yakushev, was hospitalized with it, and Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova said last week she was self-isolating after getting infected.
The announcement of Peskov's hospitalization came a day after Putin said Russia was slowing the outbreak and announced he was easing some of the nationwide lockdown restrictions.
But new questions are being raised about just how successful the response has been. Health officials reported thousands of new infections, many health care workers are falling ill with the virus amid complaints that protective gear is in short supply, and deadly fires have broken out at two hospitals for virus patients, apparently from defective breathing machines.
Mishandling the health crisis could hurt Putin's public approval after more than 20 years in power. It has been declining since 2018, when he rolled out an unpopular reform that raised the retirement age for Russians, and it is currently at its lowest since 2013.
“If we start to see mass infections and it turns out that this was a wrong move ... it will hit the government's ratings hard," former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told The Associated Press. “People will definitely connect it this his (Putin's) decision" to ease restrictions, he added.
Russia has reported more than 232,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,100 virus-related deaths as of Tuesday. Hours before Putin made a televised speech Monday about ending the partial economic lockdown, health officials reported a daily record of over 11,600 new cases.
“Let's remember this,” opposition politician Alexei Navalny tweeted after Putin's speech. “Putin lifted nationwide restrictions aimed at curbing the epidemic on the day when a record has been set in new infections. W for ‘wisdom.'"
On Tuesday, health officials once again reported almost 11,000 new infections.
Because of the outbreak, the 67-year-old Putin had to postpone a nationwide vote last month on changes to the constitution that would pave the way for him to stay in office until 2036, if he desires.
On Tuesday, health officials said they were investigating the safety of ventilators after the fires in intensive care units, apparently because the breathing machines malfunctioned. killed a total of six people in the past four days.
A fire Tuesday at St. George Hospital in St. Petersburg killed five patients on ventilators. Another blaze Saturday at the Spasokukotsky Hospital in Moscow killed one patient. Both hospitals had been repurposed for treating coronavirus patients, and in both cases, faulty Russian-made ventilators were reported to have started the fires.
The government says hospitals have enough ventilators to deal with the outbreak, and Putin said Monday that only “a small fraction” of Russia’s ventilator stockpile is being used.
However, doctors in hospitals outside big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have been complaining about not enough ventilators or their poor quality, as well as about sweeping shortages of protective equipment.
Peskov regularly dismissed those complaints at his daily briefings and maintained that Russian hospitals are well-stocked with everything they need, attributing reports of shortages to isolated incidents that were quickly addressed by the government.
He has been the Kremlin's feisty voice in denying Russia's involvement in various international scandals, such as the inference in the 2016 U.S. election, the poisoning of Russia's ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K., and recent allegations of Russian security services plotting to poison Czech officials.
Peskov's infection has raised questions anew about the spread of the virus to top government officials.
In late March, Putin was photographed shaking hands with Dr. Denis Protsenko, head of Moscow's top hospital for coronavirus patients. The next week, Protsenko was reported to have been infected with the virus.
“Who did you think of in terms of ‘Who’s next?' when you read the news about Peskov?" opposition politician Leonid Volkov tweeted Tuesday. “And why was Putin (on your mind)?”
Associated Press producer Tanya Titova contributed.
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