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The corona fighters: Crunching data by day, poetry by night, Maharashtra officer has his hands full

Maharashtra reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 9 — a couple from Pune who were part of a 40-member group that returned from a Dubai tour on March 1.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | Published: March 18, 2020 4:40:39 am
Coronavirus India news, The Corona fighters series Indian Express, Coronavirus India Maharashtra news, Indian Express news The corona fighters: Dr Awate compiles data to be sent to the CM. (Express photo: Ashish Kale)

The corona fighters in India: It’s 2 PM Monday, the day before Maharashtra recorded its first coronavirus death, and a tense silence grips the surveillance unit at the Heath Department office in Pune — a report has come in of another positive case in Yavatmal, and data from Navi Mumbai on a Philippines national.

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Dr Pradeep Awate, the state surveillance officer in charge of the epidemiology section, steps out of the small cubicle where he shares space with three health officers who are managing a helpline. Turning away from a bunch of colleagues waiting for a 10-minute lunch break, he heads to the data section.

After a quick check with manager Shravani Kulkarni and entomologist Dr Mehrun Raje, Awate takes a deep breath, reaches for the phone and dials the Chief Minister’s office. The latest data will be sent in 15 minutes, he says.

Medics outside an isolation ward of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at a hospital in Hyderabad, Friday. (PTI)

It’s a daily routine, these days — and a challenge. Awate’s team of seven has to compile updates from 36 districts and 27 municipal corporations, cross-checking the numbers each time with emails sent by district authorities.

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“Until March 16, a total 1,89,888 passengers have been screened from 1,663 flights at Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur airports. A total of 1,063 passengers have come to the state from Covid-19-affected areas till date. From January 18, a total of 794 people have been hospitalised in various isolation wards across the state owing to them developing symptoms such as fever, cold, cough. Out of the total admissions, 717 laboratory samples have been negative and 39 positive until today,” Awate reads out.

“Ok, this is fine,” he adds, and gets the report emailed to the Chief Minister, Health Minister, Health Director, and other state officials.

“There are some changes here and there in the way data reporting is being done since the time of the H1N1 (swine flu) infection. It’s been 10 years now, and dealing with Covid-19 is a lot faster, although we follow the same drill and are aggressively tracing all contacts of those who have tested positive to limit community transmission,” he says.

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“We have to check hospital preparedness and connect with laboratories to make sure that the quality of throat swabs and nasal samples sent for tests is up to the mark,” he says.

Maharashtra reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 9 — a couple from Pune who were part of a 40-member group that returned from a Dubai tour on March 1.

“Subsequently, another couple from that group tested positive in Mumbai, and there were cases in Yavatmal, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Nagpur and Ahmednagar. The travel history of the entire group had to be traced. Then, municipal health officers and medical teams were set up to trace the people they came in contact with. From those 40, 15 tested positive, 22 were negative, and three who have not shown any symptoms were quarantined at home,” says Awate.

Such was the urgency in tracing the contacts that the 54-year-old could “barely squeeze in 15 minutes” to check on his ailing mother who is in a hospital barely half-a-kilometre from his office.

Awate’s role does not end with compressing vast amounts of data into bits of information for policy makers. He is also part of the state team that trains doctors, paramedics, nurses and health workers on containing an epidemic.

Even once he is back home, Awate remains on call. “Last night, I attended a WhatsApp call from a 23-year-old woman in New York on the precautionary measures to be taken for her 72-year-old mother in Mumbai. Once, there was a call from a man in Pune on what he should tell his girlfriend in Beijing who had developed symptoms of the infection,” he says.

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At home, wife Madhuri is a social worker in charge of a day care centre for the mentally ill. “My daughter makes short films and son teaches political science,” says Awate.

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Then, there are days when he gets to do what he likes best — “write and walk”. The surveillance specialist is also a poet and author, with three anthologies of Marathi poetry, two collections of stories for children and other books in his name. “One story from my book Footprints has been included in the state curriculum for Class X students,” he says, with a smile.

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