How prepared is Chennai to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak?

Every year, Chennai faces one or the other disease; be it dengue, chikungunya or H1N1 influenza. But how well is the city prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak? While Health department officials say they are on high alert and precautionary measures are in place, there are still areas of concern.

As always, the city is at the centre of all the action. Every day, hundreds of passengers are being screened at the Chennai international airport, and presently, over 400 persons are under home quarantine in the city.

Health Secretary Beela Rajesh said like all local bodies, Chennai Corporation has been roped in for precautionary measures. “The Corporation has been asked to ensure that all public places are disinfected regularly and to carry out awareness initiatives among the public, including in slum tenements,” she said.

While isolation wards in government hospitals in the city have been spruced up, she said an additional quarantine facility with all required treatment/ventilatory support would come up in Tambaram, an area closer to the Chennai international airport. “Private hospitals in the city have been asked to pitch in. We have shared the treatment guidelines with them,” she said.

On its part, the Chennai Corporation has asked over 1,000 buildings including shopping malls, theatres and marriage halls to carry out disinfection of surfaces that people touch such as handrails and provide handwash facilities for people. “We have made our team members aware of COVID-19. We have strengthened disinfection measures in all our hospitals. We have sensitised private doctors, hospitals on symptoms of COVID-19 and identification of suspected patients. They should immediately report such patients to us,” a health official of the Corporation said.

The Corporation has earmarked 30 beds at the Communicable Diseases Hospital (CDH), Tondiarpet for COVID-19 in case of an exigency, he said.

No thermal scanner

There are areas of concern starting with the screening at the international airport. Officials said the thermal scanner at the airport is not in use for nearly two weeks now, and health staff utilise “thermometer guns” to check the temperature of passengers. “This is not as accurate as a thermal scanner. There are sufficient number of doctors and paramedical staff for screening passengers at the airport but still there are certain inadequacies. The airport officials still do not provide sufficient number of masks and gloves for the screening personnel,” a source in the Health department said.

A passenger, who travelled from Singapore, had recently shared his experience on social media. He noted the absence of thermal scanners, insufficient stock of self-declaration forms and pens and improper scrutiny of the filled-in forms.

For P. Kuganantham, former city health officer and director of CDH, Tondiarpet, there is a need for both government and private hospitals in the city to earmark isolation wards with negative pressure rooms, and notify the public. Also, more laboratories are needed for testing samples. “The current isolation facilities are inadequate and ill-equipped. We need to improve the existing facilities. Doctors and paramedical personnel should be trained on how to handle patients,” he said. Considering the city’s population, including the floating population, he said an exclusive quarantine facility that could hold at least 4,000 to 5,000 persons should be readied with adequate number of doctors, staff nurses and persons to be involved in cleaning operations.

So how do experts assess the COVID-19 situation? V. Ramasubramanian, infectious diseases consultant, Apollo Hospitals, said there is likely to be an increase in the number of cases for a couple of months. “Local transmission is a strong possibility. Influenza also has symptoms similar to COVID-19 and without testing and confirmation, we cannot differentiate the two. As of now, testing is being done in the government only for those with a travel history to an affected country,” he said.

Italy, he said, has imposed a lockdown and this provides a good chance to control the spread of infection as social distancing is the main means of prevention. In his view, this is what is needed. “Do not panic as COVID-19 has outcomes slightly worse than flu. Individual responsibility is important. If you have fever and cough, please stay at home and do not travel. There should be an increase in civic sense,” he said. He said the hospital was gearing up to set up an isolation facility for COVID-19.

Masks not for all

Masks and hand sanitisers are fast running out in the city; there are complaints of hoarding and sale for higher rates too. But doctors and public health officials continue to reiterate that masks are not meant for all. Doctors in a few hospitals said they were finding it increasingly difficult to get masks for their use. “We are running out of masks and facing difficulty in getting masks for healthcare workers. Persons suspected to have COVID-19, those taking care of such persons and healthcare personnel need to use masks, and not all,” he said.

Dr. Kuganantham, who is the chairman of Indian Public Health Foundation, said with the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, there is every chance that every country will have the infection because of movement of people. “We have to be on alert. We need to create more awareness in schools, colleges, workplaces and places where people gather,” he said.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 2:51:41 AM |

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