PIH Kazakhstan Doctors Recover From COVID-19, Treat Family Members

PIH Kazakhstan Country Director Dr. Yerkebulan Algozhin is among staff who have recovered from COVID-19 this year, and said facing a pandemic while continuing tuberculosis care has brought his team closer together - as they now prepare for a second wave of the novel virus. 

Posted on Nov 25, 2020

PIH doctors in Kazakhstan have faced challenges with COVID-19 while continuing care for TB patients
Doctors and health care workers for PIH Kazakhstan have continued care for tuberculosis patients while facing challenges from COVID-19, including infections among staff such as PIH country director Dr. Yerkebulan Algozhin (right). Dr. Algozhin had mild symptoms and quarantined at home with his wife and mother, who also fell ill. All three recovered. Photos courtesy of PIH Kazakhstan

When Dr. Yerkebulan Algozhin heard the first reports about COVID-19 early this year, he said, the news didn’t worry him much. After all, similar viruses including SARS, bird flu and swine flu had passed without inflicting heavy losses on Kazakhstan, where he is the country director for Partners In Health (PIH).

But when COVID-19 started spreading rapidly across the country, he became scared. He thought about his tuberculosis patients, whose lungs already were weakened.

“I was worried about my relatives, friends, colleagues and patients,” he said.

Algozhin and his PIH colleagues are part of the endTB partnership, a global effort to test new treatments for tuberculosis. As they continued that work with new safety protocols for COVID-19, they didn’t anticipate that they, themselves, might become infected with the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 was first detected in Kazakhstan in March. Authorities were quick to enact a shutdown, closing borders and setting up checkpoints around the capital, Almaty. PIH began holding meetings remotely and worked to limit doctor-patient contact, delivering medicine to patients at their homes and communicating mostly online. When in-person meetings were necessary, health workers conducted medical exams outside, often on roadsides.

“Our nurses and doctors continued their work during the pandemic. Despite the risk, they regularly delivered medications to [TB] patients in different parts of the city and performed patient examinations,” Algozhin said.

PIH co-investigator Dr. Amanjan Abubakirov, a TB doctor who also works at the National Scientific TB Center, began treating COVID patients in April, after the hospital released TB patients in order to accommodate more people with COVID-19.

Fortunately, not many of the TB patients involved in the endTB study have been affected by the pandemic. A few have showed symptoms, but the one confirmed case was a mild one, Algozhin said.

However, by April, the disease started spreading quickly among medical personnel. In one Almaty hospital, almost 200 doctors and nurses tested positive for COVID-19, including all of the surgical staff. The hospital was closed and patients were transferred to other facilities.

Still, the government considered overall rates of infection low enough to lift the emergency restrictions.

In June, Algozhin himself fell ill, as did Abubakirov. Since many members of PIH’s Kazakhstan staff began showing symptoms, the whole staff was given mandatory sick leave and sent home.

COVID-19 Care at Home

Algozhin said he had a mild case of the disease. His symptoms included loss of smell and taste, bronchitis and fatigue. His wife and mother also fell ill. He and his family convalesced at home.

His son, also a doctor, provided treatment for them, including for Algozhin’s mother, who was seriously ill with pneumonia for two months.

Fortunately, they all recovered.

But sadly, Algozhin’s good friend, a doctor who worked in one of the TB dispensaries, succumbed to COVID-19. Algozhin said his friend was a devoted physician who was “working with patients, almost to the end.”

Abubakirov’s symptoms included pneumonia, high fever, shortness of breath, and loss of smell and taste.

His treatment included antiviral and hormonal medication, anticoagulants, cough medicine and vitamins, he said.

Six days later, his 75-year-old father fell ill.

“His oxygen saturation dropped to 44 percent,” Abubakirov said.

 With hospitals overloaded at that time and medical workers working 18-hour shifts, Abubakirov and his sister, also a doctor, agreed to treat their father at home. As Abubakirov recovered, his father began having problems with his heart, kidneys, and central nervous system.

“We thought we would lose him,” Abubakirov said.  

But the care he and his sister provided was successful, and their father recovered.

COVID-19 cases started decreasing across Kazakhstan. By the end of August, the TB hospital had discharged its last COVID-19 patient and returned to treating TB patients.

Second Wave

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Health said 59 doctors in Kazakhstan have died of COVID-19. The government has offered financial compensation for doctors’ families.

Across Kazakhstan, doctors are now better equipped and more knowledgeable then they were at the beginning of the pandemic, Algozhin said. They are better prepared for a second wave, having procured new supplies of personal protective equipment, disinfectants, pulse oximeters, thermometers and ultraviolet lamps.

Moreover, the PIH team in Kazakhstan learned how to work remotely while maintaining teamwork.

“We became more united and learned how to work in emergency situations,” Algozhin said.  

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