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Bihar ready with 7,500 hotel rooms to screen 25 lakh returning migrants: Health minister

Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey says the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the state is because of the state govt’s door-to-door screening campaign.

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New Delhi: There has been a lot of outrage in Bihar and on social media over the fate of the state’s migrant workers and students who have been stranded in various parts of India. The Nitish Kumar-led state government had earlier refused to send buses or accept its migrants amid the nationwide lockdown, but now, special trains arranged by the Centre have begun bringing back workers.

This comes at a time when there has been a spurt in the number of Covid-19 cases reported in Bihar — the numbers until Saturday read 481 cases and four deaths, with 101 patients having recovered.

But state health minister Mangal Pandey told ThePrint in a digital interview that the government has made arrangements to screen the returning migrants. He also insisted that the coronavirus situation in Bihar is under control, testing is being stepped up alongside a door-to-door screening campaign, and there are enough masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for doctors and other healthcare workers.

Excerpts from the interview:

Also read: How Bihar Covid situation deteriorated in 3 weeks, and why doctors fear worst is yet to come

‘Situation under control’

Pandey downplayed the spike in Covid-19 cases in Bihar, saying the rate of infections per million wasn’t as much as other states.

“The number of new coronavirus patients in Bihar has increased continuously for the last seven-eight days. Earlier, the daily number of new cases was in single digits, but in the last one week, it has hit double figures,” said Pandey, who is a member of the BJP, an ally of Nitish’s JD(U).

“Our state is the third most populous in the country, with a population of about 12 crore. The current number of positive cases is less, compared to other states, so as of now, we can say that the situation is under control,” the minister said.

“We are also fully aware that if cases increase, our concerns will also rise. But in a way, it will also break the chain of coronavirus infections.”

Asked about the low number of Covid-19 tests being conducted in Bihar, Pandey said infrastructure had been built and the pace was being stepped up.

“When coronavirus cases were first reported in the country, there was not a single lab in Bihar to test samples. Forty-eight samples had to be sent to Pune at that time. But in the last one and a half months, six new labs have been established and around 1,500-1,600 samples are being tested,” he said.

Pandey also detailed the door-to-door screening exercise that the state is conducting.

“We have conducted door-to-door screening in seven districts, and the total number of people screened in this campaign is around 4.09 crore. Now from 1 May, the door-to-door screening campaign has been initiated in the entire state, so that potential coronavirus patients can be identified. This might also be a factor behind sudden increase in the number of corona-positive cases,” the minister said.

Also read: Bihar turns clock back for Covid-19 fight, seeks to replicate 1998 polio eradication drive

Masks & PPE kits

At the beginning of April, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had asked the Centre to provide 10 lakh N-95 masks, five lakh PPE kits and 100 ventilators, but so far, only 50,000 masks and 4,000 PPE kits have been provided, while not a single new ventilator has made it to the state.

Doctors at the Patna Medical College had also been vocal in demanding PPE kits, at a time when there were only 24 Covid-19 cases in Bihar.

However, Pandey allayed fears of a shortage of these essential items. “Initially, we thought there might be some problem in availability of these items, but today there is no shortage of PPE kits or N-95 masks in Bihar. As of now, around 900 ventilators are also available in Bihar,” he said.

“Currently, our patients do not even require oxygen support. Using ventilators is still a distinct possibility. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi often says, every challenge creates an opportunity. In that way, this challenge will work towards improving the health infrastructure in Bihar for future needs.”

The issue of returning labourers

Opposition parties have launched repeated attacks on the Nitish government for ignoring the state’s migrant workers, labourers and students stranded in other states. But now that trains are being run to take them back to their home states, Pandey’s department is crucial to ensuring their health and safety, as well as that of people already living there.

“If 25 lakh people indeed return to the state, then as health minister, it is my responsibility to complete all the required preparations for their medical examination. For this, the health department has booked more than 7,500 rooms in hotels,” he said.

“We also have 66 isolated hospitals, and three hospitals dedicated to Covid patients. District-wise teams have been formed to screen incoming labourers,” Pandey added.

Also read: How Nitish put onus of solving Bihar’s problem of stranded migrants, students on Modi govt

Preparations for encephalitis

Last year, hundreds of children had died in Bihar due to ‘chamki bukhar’, a variant of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES). Pandey had copped a lot of criticism at the time, but this time, along with preparations for Covid-19, Bihar is also preparing to avoid a repeat of the encephalitis outbreak.

“This problem has persisted for the last 10 years. Many institutions like ICMR, AIIMS and even foreign institutions are researching the disease, but until now, there is neither a vaccine nor any medicine to treat it. Doctors have to end up treating children’s symptoms,” Pandey said.

“After Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s announcement last year, and eight months of labour, a new hospital has been constructed in Muzaffarpur, the worst-affected district in last year’s encephalitis outbreak,” the minister detailed.

“As of now, there are 68 beds available here. Work is also going on to complete a 60-bed emergency ward, and it will be completed in a week. So far, 29 patients of chamki bukhar have been treated at this facility, and they returned home healthy.”

Bihar’s crumbling health system

Asked if it was viable to invite private investors to improve Bihar’s crumbling health infrastructure, Pandey pointed to the improvements made since Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) came to power in 2005.

“Earlier governments did not take health services seriously, nor did they strive to make any attempt to improve the health infrastructure. But today, medicines are available in all the hospitals, and the public has also developed confidence in government-run hospitals,” Pandey said.

“Soon, we are going to recruit 3,500 doctors. A 300-bed Medanta Hospital is also coming up in Patna. Our government is making all the efforts to encourage private investors to invest in the medical facilities in Bihar,” he said.

Also read: Bihar, Bengal Covid migrants aren’t as lucky as those from UP or MP


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