“Treatment will be over the phone, free of cost, and no personal visits for those with COVID-19 symptoms.” After his father shared this message on WhatsApp Wednesday afternoon, Dr Saif Mohammed Khan’s mobile phone has not stopped ringing. As frantic enquiries began pouring in, Dr Khan says he attended to at least 250 calls between 5 pm and 2 am that day.
A general surgeon from Noorkhan Bazar area in Old City of Hyderabad, the 30-year-old has started offering free consultation over the phone to those suspecting SARS-COV-2 infection and are unable to reach a doctor.
Ever since the breakout of COVID-19, a considerable number of cases have been reported from Hyderabad’s Old City. While households, neighbourhoods, and markets practically make physical distancing very difficult, the absence of a designated COVID-19 hospital is also fueling fear among the public. Further, out of the 11 government-run free testing centres recently established in Hyderabad, the old city has only one — at Charminar.
Dr. Khan feels people from the Old City are neither being provided adequate medical consultation and timely treatment nor can they afford visiting a corporate hospital. “It is true that there are a lot of cases here. I have seen households with 4 -5 members with symptoms. They are getting over-the-counter medication and experimenting on themselves. There is a fear, which is why they refuse to go to government hospitals or even get tested,” he says.
He said he is offering teleconsultation to patients with mild to moderate symptoms and refers those with severe symptoms to hospital. As a standard operating procedure, apart from counseling the callers, he also asks them to get a pulse oximeter at home, check for oxygen saturation levels, get an oxygen cylinder if saturation level has dropped below 90, and isolate themselves if necessary.
“Investigation reports are checked on WhatsApp, and symptomatic treatment is given as per the protocol. With oxygen treatment and supportive medication, eight out of 10 mild to moderate cases will recover. In 24-48 hours we can see a massive improvement,” says Dr Khan, adding there is much negativity and stigma about the disease.
According to him, even oxygen cylinders that were available around six months ago for Rs 10,000 are now being sold for Rs 30,000. The vendors, he said, are taking advantage of the pandemic in the absence of regulations.
“I am doing whatever I can out of my own interest. The prayers I receive in return will safeguard my family. I will be happy if more and more doctors start teleconsultation so that I can allay their fears,” said Dr Khan.
On July 9, Telangana crossed the 30k-mark. Of the 30,946 confirmed cases, 12,423 are active and under treatment, whereas 331 people have succumbed to the disease. According to the health department, government hospitals have 15,529 of the 17,081 COVID-19 vacant beds as of date. The bed occupancy is only 9 per cent. In Gandhi Hospital, the nodal centre for treatment of COVID-19 in the state, 1,118 of 1,890 beds are vacant and only 126 patients are in ICU.
Realising the Old City’s grave situation, Mujtaba Hasan Askari is ensuring free supply of oxygen cylinders to those in need. His Helping Hands Foundation (HHF), an NGO working in this part of Hyderabad, is extending free ambulance service to emergency cases between 6 pm and 12 am. One may call 8897867726 / 8977898706 for free oxygen supply and services, and call 9603540864 / 9490810914 for emergency ambulance services.
A medically referred COVID-19 positive patient or a COVID-19 suspect can call the NGO and get a 65kg oxygen cylinder with pulse oximeters free of cost. The refill, too, is free. The patients on oxygen therapy are monitored by a team of doctors round-the-clock via an online command and control centre.
While inflammatory markers tests, if advised by a doctor, are performed free of cost, RT-PCR tests are conducted twice a week in collaboration with the Lepra ICMR lab at a subsidised rate of Rs 1500.
“People of the Old City are in fear. There is an acute shortage of oxygen cylinders and accessories. The shortage of beds in private hospitals is adding to the problem. Many middle-class families are scared to go to government hospitals and opt for home care,” said Askari on why he started the initiative.
According to him, given the health emergency in the city, many NGOs and social groups are providing telemedicine, essential medical supplies, and counseling, etc. “We decided to go one step ahead by arranging oxygen cylinders, transportation services, and some inflammatory markers testing and online doctor consultation, all free of cost and at the doorstep,” said Askari
On an average, the HHF requires to provide six to eight cylinders every day. How are they procuring oxygen cylinders when there is a shortage? “Yes, there is an acute shortage, and black marketing too. I had a contact in one of the companies which produces oxygen. They are giving me a 65-kg cylinder of 7000 liters at a cost of Rs 10k,” he explains.
“We have been working in the Old City for the past many years but the present situation is extremely bad….no private affordable hospital is offering COVID beds. There is a sense of fear of government hospitals and stigma, which is making things worse,” he said.
Asaduddin Owaisi, the Member of Parliament from Hyderabad, has tried to dispel the fear of government hospitals from the minds of people and urged them to go there for treatment.
On Thursday evening, while appealing to the poor not to fall for what he called a “propaganda”, Owaisi tweeted: “It’s unfortunate that hysterical and untruthful stories against COVID-19 government hospitals in Telangana are creating an exaggerated picture in minds of many and preventing them from seeking timely treatment.”
He also said it was also “very unfair to the excellent frontline staff of these hospitals”.
Owaisi also called for an urgent need to ramp up proactive testing which, according to him, will ensure uninterrupted access of medical care to the poor.
THREAD: It’s unfortunate that hysterical & untruthful stories against COVID19 Govt Hospitals in Telangana are creating an exaggerated picture in minds of many & preventing them from seeking timely treatment It’s also very unfair to the excellent frontline staff of these hospitals
— Asaduddin Owaisi (@asadowaisi) July 9, 2020
He also said the picture being presented is that government hospitals have simply “stopped” treatment. “This is neither truthful nor beneficial to anyaone. It is preventing poor people from accessing emergency healthcare.”
While acknowledging instances of patients refusing to get treated in government hospitals, he said it was “worrisome” and that many patients have recovered in these hospitals.
At the Government Unani Hospital in Charminar, the only government-run testing centre in the Old City, Owaisi said 5,200 samples have been tested since June 16 and 578 have been reported positive till July 6. An approximate 250 tests are being done here every day, he said.
He said he has spoken to health minister Eatala Rajender about increasing the number of RT-PCR tests in each centre to at least 1,000 a day from the current 250 a day.
He also urged the state government to make the Government Unani Hospital a First Referral Hospital to ensure that COVID-19 patients get access to better healthcare.
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