Nothing seems to be going right for the TRS government in Telangana as it grapples with a steady surge in the number of COVID-19 cases amid widespread criticism over its poor testing record.
After epidemiologists, doctors, medical students, and the high court, it is now the turn of the State Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan to openly disagree with the government’s strategy on COVID-19 testing. She has advised the government to increase the testing to check the spread of the deadly virus.
“There should be more testing to detect the extent of the virus spread,” Soundararajan, herself a medical professional, said.
Her public comments, made soon after visiting the state-run Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) in Hyderabad, came as an embarrassment for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government which is already facing flak for its poor testing record.
The High Court has also pulled up the government over the issue and directed the authorities to make public the complete details of testing, contact tracing, number of persons sent to quarantine in state-run institutions, admissions and discharged COVID-19 patients in each of the hospitals.
The Governor’s visit to NIMS, where several doctors have tested positive, has not gone down well with the government.
“They (doctors) are under severe pressure. As a fellow doctor, I wanted to express my support and thank them for their service and assure them that I am with them,” Soundararajan said.
According to sources in the Raj Bhavan, Soundararajan was ‘unhappy’ with the ‘lackadaisical’ approach of the government in tackling the pandemic.
“The Governor had written several letters to the government voicing her concerns and also making certain suggestions. But, the response has been lukewarm at best,” sources revealed.
80 govt docs infected
In the past two weeks, over 80 government doctors and several paramedical staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the city.
“Fifty doctors at Osmania Medical College, 26 at NIMS, and 4 at Gandhi Medical College have tested positive so far. Several lab staffers, nurses and paramedics have also tested positive. Doctors and staff require more protective gear. We are also hearing a number of doctors of private hospitals also testing positive and they are being treated at the hospitals where they work,’’ said Dr G Srinivas, the president of NIMS Resident Doctors Association.
The healthcare workers at top government medical colleges and hospitals blame the government for exposing them to the virus by not testing enough.
“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb. The government should at least step up testing now. So many doctors and health workers are at risk,’’ said Dr K Mahesh Kumar, the president of the Healthcare Reforms Doctors Association.
The Doctors for Sewa, an NGO of medical experts, had submitted a representation to the Inter-Ministerial Central Team last month, highlighting the low testing rate in the state.
Telangana is the only major state that does not reveal its testing numbers in the daily bulletin.
With one of the lowest testing rates in the country, Telangana may well be sitting on a huge crisis. According to the ICMR data, it has conducted 652 tests per million population, compared to the national average of around 1,600.
As of May 14, the state had conducted just 22,842 tests, which was among the lowest in the country. It was even lower than the tests conducted by Chhattisgarh and Assam, both of which had less than 100 cases on May 14.
This roughly translates to an average of over 200 tests a day, making it the lowest among the southern states. Telangana had conducted only about 3,500 tests in the first two weeks of May even as its capital Hyderabad was labelled a virus hotspot by the Union Health Ministry.
“Testing is an early warning system. The government is not testing enough and its policy is putting doctors and frontline workers at extreme risk. We don’t know about the spread of infection,” said Dr Mahesh Kumar.
According to an official bulletin, the state has recorded 3,920 positive cases as of 5 pm on June 9. As many as 148 have died so far.
The High Court has come down heavily on the government for failing to comply with its orders on testing.
“The court has directed the government to submit testing figures but it has not done so far. We will file a contempt petition against the government,”said Professor P L Vishweshwara Rao who filed a petition seeking testing figures.
“Healthcare workers are not being allowed to test as authorities think that if they test positive it would send a wrong signal to others and they may refuse to work. Infected doctors not only pose risk to patients they are treating but also to their own families and other staff members,’’ Dr Mahesh Kumar said.
Senior doctors and public health experts say the situation is alarming as doctors at the three main government hospitals have tested positive.
“Many of these are very highly experienced senior doctors, including cardiology specialists, pulmonologists, diabetologists, and general physicians. The high number of cases among doctors indicates that a large number of people visiting hospitals are carrying the virus and they don’t know about it because no tests have been done in the area from which they come from,” said a senior doctor at NIMS.
In another controversial move, the authorities have discharged over 450 patients from Gandhi Hospital and told them to “home quarantine for two weeks.”
Of them, only 60 patients have tested negative for the coronavirus at the time of discharge while 390 patients had mild to very mild symptoms.
“About 310 of the discharged patients were told to home quarantine for 14 days. The others were sent to the state-run Nature Cure Hospital because they don’t have separate rooms at their homes,” an official said.
As per guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, mild, very mild and pre-symptomatic cases could be discharged after ten days of hospitalisation without doing the virus swab test, the official said.
However, experts argue that patients can test swab positive on the 14th or 15th day, and discharging them prematurely could lead to further spread of the virus.
“All the patients were aged below 50 and had no symptoms like fever, cough or cold. They were sent home as per the guidelines,” the superintendent of Gandhi Hospital Dr M Rajarao said.
Meanwhile, the state government has termed as “impossible and impractical” the recent order of the high court, directing that COVID-19 tests should be conducted on all those who die in government hospitals.
“It is totally unscientific to call for conduct of tests on dead bodies for COVID-19 and there is no rationale behind the order. Nowhere did the World Health Organisation (WHO), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) or the Central government ask for conducting tests on the dead. The high court directions in this regard are impossible to implement,” the health minister Eatala Rajender said.
He pointed out that on an average, nearly 1,000 people die in hospitals daily for various reasons. “How is it possible to conduct COVID-19 tests on all of them?” he wondered.
The minister said all the COVID-19 positive patients admitted in Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad were being given the best possible treatment so that nobody would die of the disease. “The doctors are doing their best, even risking their own lives,” he said.