The Tamil Nadu Health Department has ordered Covid hospitals in the state to not let attendants of patients inside isolation wards, a day after NDTV reported them having a free access to Covid patients at government hospitals. This ignores safety protocols and exposes people to heavy viral load. While government hospitals blame it on shortage of doctors and nurses, the hospitals could potentially turn into super spreaders.
Inside the Covid block of Rajiv Gandhi Hospital, NDTV managed to walk in a few days ago, the situation was hard to believe. In the ground floor halls where patients are first wheeled into oxygen beds, almost every bed had an attendant, mostly a desperate family member either using a hand fan or feeding patients or speaking to them.
Some even sat together on the bed with patients. None of them wore a PPE and did not follow social distancing. The halls on both sides were so crowded with only a few doctors and nurses attending to a few cases.
On chairs along the corridors were patients and visitors, some resting and some chatting without complying with Covid safety norms. Though a board at the entrance says "No visitors allowed", it's free for all as the private security guards let almost everyone inside.
Attendants allege they get little medical help other than oxygen.
Elumalai, whose sister is being treated there for Covid, says patients and attendants are left to fend for themselves and doctors and nurses openly plead helplessness due to shortage of hands.
"Doctors are not enough. Nurses also inadequate, they aren't able to do anything. They say 'patients keep coming, what can we do?'" he said.
On the treatment, he added, "They come only if we keep asking them four times. For two days, they did not give any medicine. They kept saying wait, why do you hurry. They gave oxygen, that's it."
Many family members say their presence is required in the case of elderly patients.
In another part of Chennai, at Stanley Medical College Hospital too, the attendants are in close proximity to oxygen beds used by Covid patients.
Experts say 10 per cent of Covid spread is from hospitals despite precautions. Violation of safety guidelines, they say, could turn into a super spreader event, infecting attendants, besides frontline health workers.
Healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses and other staff have been under tremendous pressure over the last one year and it has only increased in the last 10 weeks. At Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital, four nurses take care of more than 10 patients against the normal four.
Doctors too are overstretched as 50 per cent of the workforce would be on mandatory quarantine. Dr Therani Rajan, Dean of Rajiv Gandhi Medical College Hospital, said, "Out of 900 nurses, 450 of them would be on quarantine in turns and so are 350 of the 700 doctors."
A few doctors and nurses who did not want to be named told NDTV there is a severe shortage of doctors and nurses against the exponential rise in Covid cases. "We are unable to handle every one," one of them said.
Chennai alone accounts for 7,000 Covid cases every day. The daily tally has crossed 33,000 with a 20.7 per cent positivity rate. Tamil Nadu's active cases today crossed 2 lakh.
Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan told NDTV that allowing attendants inside Covid wards is a mistake by hospitals despite several warnings. "It's a mistake, despite severely warning hospitals to never allow attendants. We have seen in certain places attendants are allowed to support Covid patients. In worst cases, they've to be given PPEs because they are at same amount of risk as anybody else not having Covid. They are potential spreaders," DR Radhakrishnan said.
On the issue of shortage of doctors and nurses, he said, "If required, honourable Chief Minister has said let's employ 25 per cent more staff."
Citing the Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939, in his order today, the Director of Public Health and Preventive Medicine DR TS Selvavinayagam said visitors and attendants at hospitals are not allowed to meet Covid patients admitted in isolation wards.
"If in any case attendants are essential, they should follow all Covid appropriate behaviour," he said.