COVID-19: Assam’s biggest hospital shut amid worries of spread in Guwahati

The state’s tally of cases jumped to 59 — including a 16-year-old from Guwahati who tested positive after she died on May 7

By Sadiq Naqvi
Published: Saturday 09 May 2020

The Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Assam’s biggest, was shut down for new patients on May 8, 2020 after a doctor tested positive for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Cases have emerged without any history of travel or contact with those infected in Guwahati, the state's largest city.

The doctor, a post-graduate medical student, was on COVID-19 screening duty at GMCH — the state’s largest tertiary care institution — since May 4, despite showing a few symptoms as early as April 27.

A total of 386 people, including a couple of professors, students and other staff members of GMCH, were quarantined, with their samples taken for testing. Two student hostels were also declared containment zones.

Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said authorities planned to test all 700 patients at GMCH, apart from all other staff members.

Positive cases with no travel history

The state’s tally of cases jumped to 59 — including a 16-year-old from Guwahati who tested positive after she died on May 7, the second death from COVID-19 in the state. The 16-year-old visited a government facility on April 27 with complaints of fever and a pain in her legs and was prescribed medicines.

Some of the new cases — including the 16-year-old — have no known history of travel or contact with a positive case. Earlier, authorities could not place the source of infection of a Guwahati-based businessman who tested positive on April 4.

Sarma admitted as much on May 8 when he said it could be assumed the infection had reached Guwahati, with everyone who have symptoms like fever, dry cough, other respiratory issues or diarrhoea, should report to the state helpline.

He also apologised for the state government not being able to treat the 16-year-old.

Earlier, four individuals, including two health workers, who tested positive in Bongaigaon district on April 30 also did not have any travel or contact history.

Talks were on with private laboratories in Delhi for quicker tests, according to the minister. Assam has seven labs where 14,997 samples were tested as of May 8, according to the National Health Mission’s daily bulletin on Assam.

The state’s first positive case was reported on March 31, when a madrassa teacher from Barak Valley in Karimganj — a district that shares a border with Bangladesh — tested positive. The teacher was a follower of the Islamic missionary Tablighi Jamaat movement and had visited the movement’s headquarters (Markaz) in early March during a visit to Delhi for cancer treatment.

In the subsequent days — as the state government traced all those who visited the Markaz — the number of positive cases rose. Of the total cases, 34 individuals — including the teacher — recovered.

Return of migrant workers

A recent spurt in cases may be attributed to a bus carrying 42 passengers that reached the state from Rajasthan’s Ajmer. As many as 10 individuals on the bus tested positive and at least 11 areas in Silchar in Barak Valley were designated containment zones.

Sarma said the bus came without prior permission from state authorities, without any social distancing. Two others reached the state from West Bengal and tested positive, forcing the state government to relook its strategy.

Authorities were told to allow people from West Bengal only on humanitarian grounds, said Sarma. Everyone who was coming to the state from red zone districts would be put for at least three days of institutional quarantine, until their results were out, he added.

Two state government officials who did not wish to be named said migrants wanted to return to their home state, something that was the biggest worry for authorities, with each positive case adding to anxieties.

Over a thousand people returned to the state May 6 and May 7, after which they were screened and subsequently quarantined.

One of the officials mentioned above said states like Kerala that have a large number of migrants from Assam — mostly daily wagers — are keen to put them on trains, claiming their stay could affect law and order.

A spokesperson of the Northeast Frontier Railways (NFR), however, said as on May 8, he received no information of any passenger train scheduled for Assam so far, since a formal request is yet to be made by respective governments of the originating states.

The NFR official and another state official, however, clarified that a conversation on the possibilities of getting some of the stranded people back is on between officials of the railways and the states.

Sarma said on May 7 that the state government’s nodal officer was in touch with the railways and that migrants would be brought back, as and when the latter allots trains.

He said the request was initially made for one train each from all important states and that the state government expected the first train to be allotted around May 10.

Amid criticism of the state’s low testing rate, Sarma defended the strategy on May 7, when he claimed Assam did better than other states as it also tested random samples of asymptotic cases.

“I don’t think we have missed the bus,” he said.

He said the state’s new strategy — where a team comprising of a doctor, auxiliary nurses and midwifes and others will visit each village, check everyone with symptoms of flu or other acute respiratory issues.

The team will test symptomatic cases for malaria and Japanese Encephalitis, with the latter leading to 161 deaths in 2019, the highest ever in the state. If a doctor in the team feels any of the symptomatic patients need to be tested for COVID-19, the individual’s sample will be taken and tested.

The number of tests will increase, Sarma said.

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