Assam Finance and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Saturday announced that the state is facing financial stress due to the huge expenditure in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and will withdraw a host of freebies given to its patients.
He announced the withdrawal of some of the non-chargeable services offered to COVID-19 patients like dropping them at their homes after discharge from hospitals and levied charges on dedicated cabins. If anyone wishes to get the result of RT-PCR tests in government hospitals within 24 hours, then it will be charged at Rs 2,200 at the government hospitals.
Rs 6,000 will have to be paid by anyone from private hospitals needing plasma, Sarma told a press conference.
"While fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Assam, our revenues or resources are slowly getting stressed ... If it continues till October-November, then it will be difficult for us," he said.
To mitigate the financial crisis, the minister announced that from now on the paying cabins which were free for COVID-19 patients at government hospitals, will be chargeable from now. The medicines will, however, continue to be free.
"We will also not be giving free vehicle drops to a patient after he or she is discharged. He or she has to arrange it. However, for inter district movement of patients after release, we will continue to arrange their transport," he added.
Mr Sarma also requested patients to bring their own food while being admitted to government hospitals as arranging food for all might be difficult in coming days. But the government will continue to feed the BPL or poor COVID-19 patients.
"We made a calculation that till yesterday we had one lakh patients. If the patients are staying in government hospital for 10 days, that means it will be 10 lakh in headcount. If we are spending Rs 500 per day, then it becomes a Rs 500 crore affair. We have done 20 lakh tests and if we have spent Rs 1,000 approximately in each then it is a Rs 200 crore affair ... The state government can definitely not handle such a huge burden. So, a time may come when we will be able to look after only the poor patients. However, today that situation has not come yet," Mr Sarma said.
Assam has recorded a total of 1,01,367 coronavirus cases of which 26,646 have been reported from Guwahati city alone. At present, 20,008 patients are still being treated.
On the COVID-19 scenario in the state, Mr Sarma said 433 patients are on oxygen support while 126 are still in the ICU of different hospitals.
"One worrying thing is the rising consumption of oxygen. In the last month the average daily consumption of oxygen for COVID-19 patients was five metric tonnes, which has increased to 8.25 metric tonnes this month. If we consider the non-COVID-19 patients, then it is 25 metric tonnes," he added.
The current production capacity of oxygen cylinder manufacturers is 37.86 metric tonnes daily and it will be a problem if more number of serious patients come in the near future as the supply is getting gradually saturated, Mr Sarma said.
"We have started talks with West Bengal and Bihar but bringing oxygen tankers everyday is not that easy. So the people have to be serious. They need to wear masks and maintain social distancing norms, but we are seeing that people are not following them," he added.
Mr Sarma said that 707 COVID-19 patients have received plasma therapy so far, while 1,350 have been injected with Remdesivir, a broad spectrum anti-viral medication.
Asked if the government is considering to re-impose lockdown in Assam to arrest the rising number of cases, the minister said: "We don't support lockdown as it affects the livelihood of the people. But if oxygen supply ends and people do not follow the norms, then what will I do?".
He said the state was able to control the COVID-19 death rate at 0.24 per cent till around August 15, but it increased thereafter and has reached to around 0.28, which is still the lowest in the country.
A total 289 COVID-19 patients have died in Assam.
The positivity rate has also increased to above six per cent from around 4.5 per cent in this period, he added.
"We are seeing on average 2,500 cases every day. Our doubling rate has risen to 23 days from 15 days earlier. We have so far done 21,46,987 tests, which is 22,606 tests per million. We are at the fifth position in the country," Mr Sarma said.
Though Assam has the capacity to test one lakh samples everyday, experts have suggested to do 35,000 tests, which is 0.1 per cent of the total population, he added.