Amaravati: Wearing a striped red-and-white jersey, a Vijayawada resident winces as a pair of hands, sticking out of two holes punched into the side of a bus, inserts a swab (which resembles a Q-tip) into his nose.
The hands belong to a lab technician whose face is visible through a column built into the space usually reserved for bus windows. Once the nostril swab is collected, the hands retreat.
The sample will now be dispatched to a government lab for a Covid-19 test and the resident, whose contact details have been noted down, will know the result in 48 hours.
The bus, which offers free Covid-19 tests, is one of 10 mobile facilities that the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh has launched to aid its efforts against the pandemic. Another 10 of the buses are scheduled to hit the roads Thursday, said Vijaya Gadiraju, the cofounder of Vera Technologies, a US-based startup aiding the state government’s mobile testing efforts.
Called the Intelligent Monitoring Analysis Services Quarantine (I-MASQ), the buses currently serve the Krishna and Srikakulam districts. The second fleet of 10 will be deployed in Kurnool, Chittoor, Anantapur and Guntur, Gadiraju said.
At 11,207 per million, Andhra Pradesh has one of the highest testing rates in India. And its robust testing framework appears to be helping the state mount a strong battle against coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, the state had recorded 5,555 Covid-19 cases, of which 2,096 have been discharged and 2,559 are still under treatment. The disease has killed 90 patients in Andhra Pradesh so far.
The idea to expand the testing fleet, with over 50 government buses expected to join in the coming days, comes amid what appears to be a spurt in incidence. Between 10 and 17 June, the number of cases in the state has gone up by 1,429.
The first mobile testing facility in Andhra Pradesh was launched in Vijayawada, Krishna district, May-end. Here, the vehicles have been parked at key junctions, including outside the railway station and airport.
“We have stationed four buses in Vijayawada, given the number of passengers arriving by train and flights here,” said Vijayawada collector Mhd Imityaz. One of these buses, he added, was also stationed inside the assembly Wednesday morning for “compulsory testing of legislators ahead of the budget assembly session”.
Inside the buses, the passenger seats have been turned into chairs for 11 lab technicians and doctors who sit behind as many booths, facing the window side.
The space reserved for windows has been covered with acrylic, and it’s in this sheet that two holes have been carved for the technicians to collect samples without coming into contact with the test subjects. Outside, the test subjects stand on an elevated platform as the staff collects their samples.
The swabs, once collected, are handed over to government health department staff, who declare the results in a maximum of 48 hours. Each test subject is required to submit an ID proof and Aadhaar number so they can be informed about the test results.
Outside the airport and railway station, people also have to hand over their PNR/flight numbers, to trace contacts in the event of a positive diagnosis.
The doctors or lab technicians, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, do not come face-to-face with the test subjects, lowering the risk of infection that stalks regular laboratories.
“We feel safer this way as there is reduced contact with patients,” one of the doctors on duty outside the Vijayawada railway station told ThePrint. “Inside the bus, there is also a quarantine berth with ventilator facilities for containment zones,” added a lab technician, saying it could be deployed in emergencies.
Dileep, who is in charge of the bus, said they gathered at least 800 samples from each bus in one day. Health department officials told ThePrint they were looking to bolster this number to 1,200 samples in the days to come.
State buses to join fleet too
Soon, state-run buses will also be pressed into service as mobile testing facilities, Andhra Pradesh Health Secretary Jawahar Reddy told ThePrint.
According to Reddy, 53 Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) buses will be repurposed to this end.
The buses will be called “Sanjivini” and a couple of them will be out on the roads by the end of this month, he said.
“The RTC head reached out to us after he learnt we are using some private buses for the facility. He offered to give us his buses for testing purposes and collecting swabs in distant areas,” Reddy added.
Given the restrictions on intra-state travel amid rising cases of coronavirus here, KBS Reddy, the executive director for operations, RTC, said they weren’t in a position to operate the entire fleet.
“This is when we felt we could be of service to our people during a tough time like this,” he added.
Some of the buses are also being used as mobile rythu (farmer) bazaars to carry essential items to households in red zones.
While the RTC buses are still being converted, they are expected to have 10 booths (five on each side) and three computers.
An opportunity to chip in
Discussing the idea of mobile testing facilities, Health Secretary Reddy said the idea is “to help conduct tests at the grassroots level where people sometimes don’t get themselves tested due to the stigma that comes with Covid-19”.
For the owners of Vera Technologies, which specialises in mobile hospitals in the US and also has an office in Hyderabad, the opportunity to chip in is something they are grateful for.
“We visit India every two months… this time, when we came in March, we got stuck due to the lockdown,” said Vijaya, adding that the setback led to an opportunity for her and cofounder Dharma Teja. “Since we were here, we wanted to be able to be of some help during the pandemic,” she added.
In May, the company also tied up with the Telangana government to launch the buses in the neighbouring state, but tests are not free there.
“A test takes up to Rs 2,400 in Telangana while the Andhra Pradesh government made it clear from day one that it would be done free of cost,” the company spokesperson said.