Describing as baseless the allegation that the State has been suppressing the figures regarding COVID-19, Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar has said a complete lockdown is the best option to control the spread of the disease. In an interview on Sunday, he said the State was prepared for the worst. Excerpts:
Given that seasonal flu can mimic the symptoms of the coronavirus, would you advise anyone with cough, fever and breathlessness to undergo tests?
Yes, there is a seasonal flu that has similar symptoms. Earlier, we were insisting on people getting themselves tested if they had fever, cough and breathlessness. But since Saturday night, breathlessness triggered by acute respiratory syndrome or pneumonia is sufficient to warrant the test.
This way, we can prevent the spread of the virus in the community. There is no dearth of testing kits or beds in isolation wards. We have eight testing centres with adequate testing kits, made available for free by the Centre.
What is the treatment protocol for patients with strong symptoms?
I am getting inputs from experts in India and abroad that this crisis is going to get worse in the next two months or so. I am aware that this is going to be a big challenge. We are getting ready to manage the situation. We have started treating quarantined patients with Chloroquine and Azithromycin drugs, which is yielding good results. Adequate quantities of these medicines, along with anti-viral drugs sufficient to treat 1.5 lakh patients, have been procured. These medicines are in high demand worldwide.
Do we have a contingency plan with adequate quarantine facilities and manpower to deal with such a situation?
There are 1,690 ventilators ready for use. A 1,000 more units are expected next week. We have 40 lakh three-ply masks, two lakh N-95 masks and thousands of units of personal protective equipment. To face any crisis that may arise, the Health Department is planning to have a reserve strength by granting leave on a rotational basis to a sizeable number of medical and para-medical staff. Orders for appointing 500 doctors, 1,000 nurses and 1,500 lab technicians will be issued soon. We have procured 10,000 cots with mattresses. Every new building inaugurated in recent times, ready-to-use buildings, etc. are being converted into isolation wards. The newly-built seven-storied Tower-III in the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital will be declared an isolation facility. Many existing wards are being converted into isolation wards. A piece of robotic equipment designed and developed by Hindustan University was trialled at RGGH on Sunday, and is working well. Doctors have suggested some more customisation, and the robot will soon serve patients in isolation wards by supplying medicines, food etc.
Are people arriving from abroad cooperating with the Health Department when it comes to screening and quarantine?
I am unhappy [with the current situation]. Many passengers with a travel history to other countries are not cooperating. They are reluctant to get quarantined and don’t follow basic instructions. Now, we have connected the 4,250 people who have been quarantined with a mobile app, and are treating them online. The geo-fence technique is being deployed to make sure they stay indoors. The number of beds in isolation wards has been increased from 1,160 to 5,800, and 32 passengers with symptoms have been admitted there. We have also drawn up a list of those who had arrived here from abroad, and are keeping a close watch on their condition. We have enforced restrictions under the Public Health Act and are stamping their (the passengers’) hands with the ‘Home Quarantined’ mark in indelible ink.
What is the status as regards the participation of private hospitals?
We had a meeting with major private hospitals on Saturday. They have agreed to earmark 100 beds each for the isolation and treatment of patients. The State will bear their treatment expenses.
Is a complete lockdown necessary to deal with the crisis?
We have sealed the inter-State borders. The railways has suspended train operations and inter-State bus services have been withdrawn. A complete lockdown is the best solution to control the spread in the community. But we also have to ensure an uninterrupted supply of essential services. The lockdown will happen in a phased manner. I want to recommend a complete lockdown in the State, and people should cooperate fully by understanding seriousness of the global crisis.
How do you view the role of social media in these troubled times?
I am actively giving updates on Twitter. But many people are posting unconfirmed reports, creating panic. Such people must realise this is a pandemic that has been claiming lives and act responsibly.
Is it true that the source of infection of the patient who came here by train from Delhi is still not known?
Yes. We have identified 193 persons who had come in contact with him days before he tested positive. But this single case is not an indicator to confirm that the infection is spreading in the community.
There is an allegation that you are suppressing the figures…
It is a baseless allegation. We are acting in a transparent manner and publishing all the data in the public domain. If revealing facts is going to create panic among the people, we’re fine with that. We can’t afford to conceal any information regarding COVID-19. We will not hesitate to project the ground reality...only then, there will be better cooperation from people.