Guwahati: Mandatory testing and compulsory 14-day quarantine, at least four in an institution — Assam’s policy for those coming into the state is among the most stringent. But, according to state Health Secretary Samir Sinha, it has paid dividends.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Sinha said it helps in prevention of Covid-19. “It is like a polluted river — you have to clean it right at the beginning before it goes to other parts of the geography and pollutes the remaining places. Otherwise it will be too late and you will have Covid cases all over.”
Assam’s Covid numbers reflect what Sinha said. So far, the state has only reported 5,586 positive cases according to its health bulletin Monday, among the least affected in the country.
The state has also implemented a rigorous policy in screening for community transmission through a community surveillance programme. On 15 June, the Assam government had also started conducting 50,000 random tests. A week later, Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the government would initiate a ward-wise lockdown in Guwahati as 114 cases sans travel history had been detected.
A sustainable model?
At the time ThePrint interviewed Sinha Monday, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi and the Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal were at loggerheads over the imposition of a five-day compulsory institutional quarantine. But in Assam, such a policy has been in place since flights and trains resumed last month.
After arriving in Assam, passengers are taken to either of the five swab collection centres across the state and are then sent to institutional quarantine for about four days, until their test results come back. A seven-day period of home quarantine is required even if the tests are negative.
“We have to keep the community safe, if it gets restricted at 4000, 5000, 10000 or even 20000 cases and the community at large gets saved then there can’t be anything better than this. This hasn’t happened in the villages yet,” Sinha said in response to a question on whether such a model was sustainable.
According to Assam’s National Health Mission director, Lakshmanan S, the state has little option but to test aggressively and quarantine. “In this disease, the only answer is to delay, delay, delay before we get a vaccine or medicine, we have to sustain. There is no question of stopping,” he said.
ThePrint had earlier reported that the massive surveillance and screening exercise has encountered bottlenecks in Assam, which suffers from a shortage of personnel. ThePrint had learnt that only 400 data-entry operators, who collate data regarding tests, containment zones and patients, had been engaged in the state for Covid work (more have been recruited since the report). Test results weren’t being reported on time, and the shortage of manpower was taking a toll on the healthcare workers.
“The issues will be there because our aspiration is high,” Sinha reasoned. “There was a time when our testing capacity was low, what we have done is, we have built up our capacity. We have more than 12 centres. Our own capacity is around 7000-8000 [tests per million].”
Until now, Assam has conducted over 3,00,000 tests, among the highest in the country.
“What is happening, this is a new disease. Earlier the need for lab technicians wasn’t felt and we didn’t know that they would be in high demand,” Sinha said.
“We have now had to engage lots of lab technicians, hundreds to thousands of them, we have given them training,” he added. “But people are also sometimes unwilling to do the job because of how risky it is. So I keep going from one hospital to another to keep the morale high.”
Cooperation with NE states
Despite ramping up its testing, Sinha said that the state government is not facing any acute shortages of kits. “We are the first state to become sufficient in N95, PPE (personal protective equipment) and we are supporting all northeastern states, in terms of testing, PPEs. Whatever they need we give them immediately,” he said.
When the lockdown was announced,there were only nine testing facilities in Northeast, of which five were in Assam. For sometime, samples from Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were sent to Assam for testing. Currently, there are 42 laboratories across all eight Northeastern States, including Sikkim.
“But we have also taken help from them,” Sinha added.
The Meghalaya government had recently supplied the state with 5,000 viral transport mediums, which are used to carry the swabs.
“We are glad to assist Assam in their fight against COVID19 by supporting them with 5000 Viral Test Media. We have enough VTMs in our stock to test all those coming from outside NE. Together we can …,” Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma had tweeted.
We are glad to assist Assam in their fight against COVID19 by supporting them with 5000 Viral Test Media. We have enough VTMs in our stock to test all those coming from outside NE. Together we can …
— Conrad Sangma (@SangmaConrad) May 21, 2020