Samalkha: The Samalkha General Hospital in Haryana’s Panipat district presents an image that is in stark contrast to the pathetic scenes being reported from many small town and rural hospitals in the second wave of the Covid pandemic across the country. There are no patients gasping for breath here, as they wait for beds in packed wards. No family members of patients fighting for the doctors’ attention, or crowding the corridors.
And the hospital is clean, very clean.
No tobacco or betel leaf spits staining the walls, no muddy footprints on the floors, or marks of grubby palms on the tables and chairs. It’s like the spotless interiors of a new car, where not even the plastic covers have been taken off the seats yet.
Built at an estimated cost of over Rs 33 crore, the 100-bed government hospital in Samalkha sub-district, was inaugurated in November 2019. But owing to the lack of doctors and other staff, and delays in final operational additions to the infrastructure, the hospital could not take in Covid patients, even as Panipat struggled to handle the burden of patients in the second pandemic wave.
The Samalkha hospital is equipped with an oxygen tank with a capacity of 6,000 litres. But it remained empty, even as people in the neighbourhood were dying from the lack of oxygen. All because the tank had not been formally handed over to the hospital authorities by the public works department (PWD), said senior medical officer, Sanjay Kumar.
The lack of staff cripples even the normal, non-pandemic working of the hospital. Surgeries can’t be performed despite there being an operation theatre and residents in the area told ThePrint that they only go to the hospital to get a referral to the one in Panipat. Minor injuries — from accidents or disputes — are all that are treated here.
It was designated a Covid hospital on 21 April and the management was directed to make available 50 beds for Covid patients — including 30 beds with oxygen support — but for nearly two weeks after that, till 10 May, the hospital was not in a position to take in any patients and had to refer anyone who came to the hospital to the Civil Hospital in Panipat, said Kumar.
This, at a time, when Panipat was among the worst-affected districts in Haryana, in terms of positivity rate. The Covid positivity rate in Panipat was 43.46 per cent on 1 May, according to data provided by sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Swapnil Patil. It was 51.57 per cent on 10 May, but was down to 22.22 per cent on 11 May. The positivity rate on 28 May was 4.96 per cent.
Jeetendra Singh, a farmer from Bhapra village in Samalkha lamented that if the hospital had been functioning, many lives could’ve been saved.
“Corona ne yahaan bahut keher machaya (Covid caused a lot of destruction here). If beds with oxygen support were available at the hospital, many lives could’ve been saved, especially at a time when people were struggling to get treatment. I know a local journalist, and a doctor’s wife who died because they didn’t get treatment on time. Their lives could’ve been saved,” he told ThePrint.
Since the hospital finally started taking in Covid patients on 10 May, it has treated 44 patients, said the authorities. Currently, 13 Covid patients are admitted in the hospital — two women and 11 prisoners from a jail in Panipat, who are isolating at the hospital following an outbreak in the prison.
But the district had weathered the worst of the surge, by the time the Samalkha hospital started operations. While active cases on 30 April were 4,436, according to numbers shared in the state health bulletin, they’d risen to 5,921 by 6 May. By the time the hospital was open for business, fewer new cases were being reported daily. On 11 May, the district recorded 6,106 active cases. By 27 May, the number of active cases in the district was down to 1,234.
An oxygen tank without oxygen
Facilities at the Samalkha hospital include an oxygen tank with a capacity of 6,000 litres, set up at a reported cost of more than Rs 8 crore. The tank, visible the minute one enters the hospital premises, was inaugurated in February 2020.
But was of no use to the district as it battled the worst of the Covid surge, simply because there was no oxygen in the tank.
SMO Kumar explained that the process of handing over the tank – from the PWD to the hospital authorities – took time because necessary checking of the tank, before it could be put to use, never happened. “This formality still hasn’t been completed. After I was asked to start 30 oxygen beds, I took the help of an outside vendor towards the end of April to check if everything is working smoothly and started the tank,” he said.
The tank was finally filled with liquid oxygen on 10 May, after reports in the local media highlighted the problem. It hasn’t needed a refill since.
Probably because the positivity rate had started coming down by then and the patient load had reduced significantly. The number of daily deaths had also gone down somewhat since 11 May.
Panipat had reported 195 cumulative deaths by 25 April, which rose to 325 by 11 May. The total number of Covid deaths in the district on 28 May was 426.
Ironically, the administration is now planning to install an oxygen plant here. “We’re planning to install an oxygen plant with the capacity to generate 200 litres per minute at the hospital, under the National Health Mission, Haryana,” District Collector (DC) Dharmendar Singh told ThePrint.
The DC, however, refused to comment on why there was a delay in getting the oxygen tank operational and only said, “no delay, it’s functional” in response to queries by ThePrint.
Short staffed & under-utilised
The empty oxygen tank was, however, only one of the hospital’s problems. The hospital doesn’t have an ICU and cannot treat critically ill patients.
One of the most severe problems crippling the hospital is that it is critically short-staffed. In such a scenario, the best the hospital can do is treat people with minor injuries — incurred in accidents or disputes. Those with critical injuries are referred to the hospital in Panipat.
Villagers living near the hospital, who were meant to be served by the facility, complained that their long wait for a hospital is yet to end, for just erecting a building and naming it a hospital did not serve the purpose.
“It’s just a building we visit to get referred to the general hospital in Panipat. They can’t even treat minor injuries or fever. We waited 15 years for this hospital to come up but it’s of no use to our community,” said Singh.
The farmer added, “They don’t even have radiologists for us to get a simple X-ray done here. We’re forced to approach private labs or hospitals for the smallest of things. What kind of a 100-bed hospital is this that doesn’t even have doctors to look after patients?”
While the hospital had only three doctors till recently, senior medical officer Kumar said that some additional staff were deputed to the hospital in the beginning of May.
“There’s an acute shortage of staff here. I only have three doctors. Now, two doctors have been additionally deputed from one primary health centre and a community health centre and one doctor has been deputation from Malerkotla. So we have a total of seven doctors now,” Kumar told ThePrint.
The hospital has 14 nursing staff and 39 ward attendants.
The complaint about not having enough staff to run the hospital is raised not just by residents of the area, but also by Kumar.
Although it has a fully-equipped operation theatre, no surgeries can be performed. “To perform surgeries I need anaesthesiologists, surgeons, physicians… but there are no doctors here. So even before Covid, all we did were sterilisation surgeries,” Kumar told ThePrint.
“Once the pandemic situation ends, we’ll get more and more doctors on board. Right now everything is overburdened. With time, we’ll sort out the staff shortage,” he said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)