The mathematical projections of MGR University indicate that there could be 1.5 lakh COVID-19 patients in Chennai by mid-July and the incidence of infection could peak in October. Going by the fact that the varsity’s projections on Chennai have been proven right so far, it is best to brace ourselves to deal with the crisis as it is quite likely to knock upon every one of our homes.
How does one stay prepared, though? Well, this is my own account, an observation of the crisis from close quarters, which might help in understanding how the system works as it is at present.
A mere 19 days after my mother passed away due to an accident, my father displayed symptoms of COVID-19. Getting tested is the first of the many hardships a patient (and their family) have to go through. We found the process to be so complicated that many would not be able to get tested even if they wanted to.
On developing symptoms, if you approach a government hospital, standard outpatient procedure is followed. It took us nearly three hours to meet the doctor. You can only hope that you are not infecting other persons in the queue and vice versa.
The government doctor will also most likely advise you to just isolate yourself and follow the medications. But if you have any comorbidities such as high BP, diabetes or heart disease, you will be recommended a swab test.
The outpatient doctor we met at the Cholera Disease Hospital (CDH) was not sure whether a swab test was being conducted in CDH, and advised us to go to Stanley the next day. The corporation corona camp staff said the testing vehicle was not available and to go back to CDH, but, to be very early so that we could be accommodated within the 300 samples limited for the day. Also, from what I enquired from the hospital, test results take up to 3 days in government labs and 24 hours in private labs.
If you approach a private clinic, the doctor will mostly try to convince you that it is just an ordinary viral fever and ask you to follow the prescriptions. But, make sure you get your symptoms handwritten by the doctor on your prescription. Private labs are very specific about this. A valid prescription is mandatory to get an appointment for tests at private labs.
We made the decision to get tested at a private lab, as we did not want to wait for too long. We went to one of the labs authorised to conduct the test in Royapettah. Swab collection took place and we received the results the next morning over Whatsapp. The lab charged Rs 4500 for the test. Additional charges are levied for home collection of samples.
Choosing a hospital
When the test result returned positive, the standard response we received from every single private hospital offering COVID-19 treatment in Chennai was “We are out of beds”. The government database that shows real time bed availability presented a complete different picture on bed availability.
As on June 7th, no private hospital was ready to take in a COVID positive patient. We informed the state helpline about the test results and asked for their guidance. They said we would get a call back by evening. But, the corporation approached us only three days later.
My advice based on this experience is to go to the nearest government hospital on testing positive. Here, the procedure they outline must be followed. From our observation, Stanley GH is cleanly maintained and the staff are equipped with protective gear. The doctors followed strict social distancing with the patients and admitted my father in the COVID ward without much ado as he had comorbid conditions. If the patient is without any comorbidities or not presenting any serious symptoms, just home isolation and monitoring is advised.
The follow-up tests for my father included blood tests, ECG and Chest X-ray. The only thing that made me a bit concerned during this process was that the ambulance they used to ply the patients to the COVID block a few hundred meters away had nearly 10 patients sitting, some even on the floor.
We saw that the COVID blocks in GH operated dedicatedly. They provided nutritious food round the clock and vitals were checked by nurses at regular intervals. After a few days, stable patients are most likely to be shifted to Corona Care Centers (CCC), to free up hospital beds.
The criticality of mental stamina
An immense amount of mental strength was necessary to get through this ordeal. We heard hospital staff screaming about the number of deaths in the block that day and saw COVID-deceased wrapped in body-bags, being driven out with their grieving families a few feet away. The patients inside the block, too, are under tremendous pressure. Thankfully, phones are allowed in government hospitals, so we were able to stay in touch with my father.
After symptoms stabilise and the patient is moved to CCC, they are under observation till 10 days have elapsed from the date of the first testing, and if there are no alarm bells or aggravation of condition while at the CCC, they are then sent on home quarantine. Whether or not the government keeps track of the patients sent home is a separate story to be developed based on further observation.
The fact that close contacts of positive cases are not tested raises suspicion that this is done with an eye on keeping numbers low. The time taken to impose quarantine restrictions at patients’ homes is also inordinately long, given the nature of emergency. Quarantining has been reduced to just stickers at the entrance and disinfecting the building. Contact tracing seems to be long forgotten. Community transmission is likely to be rampant as a result of these lapses.
To summarize, the government cannot stop you from contracting the virus. But, it can help you, to an extent in the recovery, provided you approach the mechanisms they have in place.