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Explained: Manpower crunch causing less contact tracing, surge in ‘new Covid cases’ in Punjab

The health department data that showed that more than 90% of those testing positive reportedly did not have any contact or exposure to a positive case, and such cases were listed as ‘new cases’.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba , Edited by Explained Desk | Jalandhar |
Updated: May 6, 2021 8:01:29 am
Covid-19 testing in Chandigarh. (Express Photo: Jasbir Malhi)

A recent visit by a central government team to nine districts of Punjab betrayed a glaring gap in the state’s fight against Covid-19 —the lack of contact tracing by authorities because of the rapid surge in the number of cases in several parts.

This, however, is contrary to health department data that showed that more than 90% of those testing positive reportedly did not have any contact or exposure to a positive case, and such cases were listed as ‘new cases’. The Indian Express explains the reasons behind less contract tracing and surge in new cases being reported from the state.

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How many cases were contact traced in the state?

On any given day for the past several weeks, even after the advice of the Central team, state officials have managed to trace the contacts of not more than 5-7% of the people who tested positive. The remaining cases, which accounts for more than 90%, are listed as new, which means they have no contact history. On a daily basis, there are several districts, which are only showing ‘new cases’ and not a single case of ‘contact tracing’. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has raised contract tracing as one of the major concerns for Punjab, following the visit of its team in the second week of April to assess the rapid surge in cases.

Is there a target set for districts for contact tracing by the state government? Yes, the government had directed officials to trace at least 30 contacts of every positive person. “The Centre wants the state healthcare officials to trace at least 30 contacts of a positive patient. But this isn’t being done,” said a doctor in Doaba.

Is it practically possible to achieve this target?

“Government of India’s efforts are directed more on paper than on ground,” said a senior medical officer.

“It is nigh impossible a task. To exemplify, if three persons of a family test positive, then as per government norms, there should be 90 contact (30 contacts per positive cases). When restrictions have been enforced and educational institutions are closed for months now, it is extremely difficult for even an extremely sociable person to have interacted with 30 contacts,” added the medical officer.

“At several places, a false number of contact tracing is being given to just meet the target, which is unethical,” he claimed.

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Does the state have enough manpower for contact tracing?

Teams have been constituted in every district, but the state still faces a manpower crunch in the current situation when 7000 or more cases are coming in daily. The Central team, during its visit, had also admitted that there was a shortage of staff in several districts for Covid-related work.

The District Data Management cell (Covid-19) has been created with manpower drawn from various departments. The list of positive cases is shared by the Civil Surgeon’s office with the data management cell, in which names, address and mobile number of the positive contacts are mentioned. People from the data management cell call up Covid patients to inquire about their name and other details, as well as ask them for a list of people they had met in the past 4-5 days.

“Nobody was prepared for such a situation when the cases continue surging relentlessly,” said a senior health department officer, adding that to call up such a huge number of patients daily is not possible and the cases are getting piled up daily. Hence, officials have started marking the fresh cases as new only.

Are Covid positive patients cooperating in the exercise?

A majority of Covid patients refuse to cooperate and even tell the callers that they are not positive, before counter-questioning them and asking where they got their number from. Some even claim that they were not the person who had tested positive or simply say wrong number before disconnecting.

“Several patients do not pick calls. In some cases phone number are wrong. In such cases, the data management cell informs the Civil Surgeon’s office which then hands details of such non-traceable patients to its field staff, comprising of Anganwadi workers, Asha workers, community health officials, who then visit each such patient to get their details,” said an official of the Data management Cell in Jalandhar, adding that some even use abusive language with their female staff.

“And those who share some information are usually reluctant about sharing information about their recent contacts, outside their families. If such a person had travelled in any public transport or moved around a public place, he/she may have infected several others but cannot be traced back. Such infections are deemed as new cases only,” said another physician.

“So the best way to control the surge in new cases is for people to stay at home and adopt Covid-appropriate behaviour,” said Dr Rajesh Bhaskar, state Covid-19 Nodal Officer, adding that infected people who get a false negative after RT-PCR tests are also infecting several others and tracing such contacts was extremely difficult.

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