A year after the novel coronavirus altered the ‘normal’ in Karnataka

Updated - March 08, 2021 11:33 am IST

Published - March 07, 2021 10:19 pm IST - Bengaluru

Senior citizens being given COVID-19 vaccination at KC General hospital, in Bengaluru on March 06, 2021.

Senior citizens being given COVID-19 vaccination at KC General hospital, in Bengaluru on March 06, 2021.

On March 8, 2020, when news of the first COVID-19 case hit Karnataka, no one could have imagined that the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus would bring in a “new normal”. Now, exactly a year on, our very vocabulary has been altered, with terms such as “pandemic”, “social distancing”, “masking”, and “lockdown” becoming everyday words.

In one year, COVID-19 has infected over 9.5 lakh people and claimed the lives of over 12,000 in the State. Nearly 43% of the total caseload and over 36% of the total fatalities are from Bengaluru Urban. The country’s first death was reported from Kalaburagi on March 12, 2020.

The pandemic that shook the government health authorities also made them realise that combating the disease meant strengthening the surveillance system as well as coordinating with the private healthcare sector. There were many lessons to be learnt along the way, through trial and error.

Early experiments

Karnataka started its combat against the pandemic by converting the government-run Victoria Hospital into a dedicated COVID-19 facility. However, when the disease started spreading, the Health Department roped in private hospitals, most of whom were reluctant to turn into dedicated facilities initially. A centralised bed allotment system was worked out, but only after patients lost their lives waiting for beds.

One of the few States to have taken the assistance of a Technical Advisory Committee and an expert committee in pandemic management, Karnataka strengthened surveillance for early detection and isolation. Logistics for contact tracing and control measures were put in place. A war room was set up and eight in-house applications developed for better management.

Testing labs and critical care facilities, including providing oxygenated beds, were ramped up exponentially in the public health sector, even though there were allegations of corruption in the process. The government filled thousands of vacant positions of health workers in the State, including in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. The innovative tele-ICUs and better clinical management protocol helped save lives.

Wake-up call

“The pandemic was a wake-up call for comprehensive, up-to-date policies. We have learnt how effective implementation of preventive steps need to be scaled up by partnering with the general public,” said Giridhara R. Babu, a TAC member. “Investments in public health with evidence-based approach are the need of the hour,” he added.

TAC chairman M.K. Sudharshan, who asserted that Karnataka had performed fairly well when compared to other States, said testing, contact tracing, and screening of international travellers were the State’s strengths. “However, we could not properly triage and monitor patients under home isolation. This coupled with complacency in people resulted in home-isolated patients landing in hospitals with complications. Also, targeted testing was an issue as people did not cooperate,” he said, before adding that things were looking up on that front now.

“Besides, shortage of manpower for testing and contact tracing was a huge problem initially. If recruitment of additional manpower and mobilisation of private participation had been done earlier, it would have helped,” Dr. Sudarshan said.

V. Ravi, former head of the Department of Neurovirology at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, who was tasked by the Indian Council of Medical Research to assist the State in setting up more laboratories, said the testing facilities were scaled up to 175 by November 30, from 10 in April. Dr. Ravi, who is also a member of the TAC and the nodal officer for genomic confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 in Karnataka, said the State had failed to inculcate COVID-appropriate behaviour among people. “We did not communicate well and this remains a weakness even today,” he said.

‘Don’t drop guard’

C.N. Manjunath, nodal officer for labs and testing, said although the vaccine had arrived people should not let their guard down. “COVID-appropriate behaviour is more important now when a second wave is expected. Just because the vaccine has come, it does not mean the virus has disappeared,” he said, emphasising the need for vaccination.

With the virus mutating, genomic surveillance should continue since it is a very important tool to detect variants, he added.

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