By Olesya Astakhova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two Moscow traffic police said they were ordered earlier this month to apprehend a taxi and warned, "be careful - there's coronavirus inside."
They were told to stop the driver because he had violated coronavirus-related quarantine rules and gone back to work, spending the day driving passengers around the Russian capital.
"We made a mad dash to all the nearest pharmacies," one of the officers told Reuters, "but none of them had masks."
The use of traffic police to catch quarantine violators in Moscow, which has not been reported before, underlines the extent to which the city is relying on law enforcement officers to stop the spread of the disease.
Moscow, with 290 confirmed cases, has not imposed the kind of lockdown seen in other European capitals and is using police to monitor and enforce the quarantine of specific individuals.
Moscow's mayor said on Tuesday the outbreak in the Russian capital was much worse than official figures showed and President Vladimir Putin donned a hazmat suit and respirator to visit a hospital treating coronavirus patients.
In the case of the taxi driver, the traffic policemen's colleagues ended up making the arrest when the taxi took a different route, the officers added, speaking anonymously as they do not have authority to speak to the media.
The Russian Interior Ministry, responsible for policing, did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.
Police in Moscow and other cities have tracked down patients who fled from coronavirus hospital wards. One woman was sued by doctors for flouting "forced hospitalization" and jeopardising public health.
Members of the paramilitary Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) have also been deployed to hospitals.
"The hospital is surrounded by Rosgvardiya, to make sure no one escapes," one Moscow patient, diagnosed with coronavirus, wrote on social media.
"No one is telling me how long I'll be here... Am I definitely in a hospital?" the patient wrote.
Fourteen days of self-isolation at home is now obligatory for all people entering from abroad, and is monitored by police.
"Every day someone would come by... checking I was still there," said one Moscow-based engineer, who returned from Iran in February, adding none of the policemen wore protective gear.
After the taxi driver's arrest, the central Moscow traffic police headquarters sent out a circular advising officers on what to do in a similar situation.
"You may receive information about catching a vehicle whose driver is infected with CORONAVIRUS !!!!!" the circular, made available to Reuters, read.
It told traffic police to block the car with their own, but remain inside until experts arrived, who would be wearing hazmat protective suits, with "two (extra) sets for our inspectors, in case the driver turns out to be rowdy".
(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova, Polina Ivanova, Katya Golubkova and Gleb Stolyarov; Writing by Polina Ivanova, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)