The two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) tasked with assessing West Bengal’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in seven districts could not do any meaningful work for the third day, with the state government ignoring the Kolkata team’s request for a detailed presentation on nine points, and inspection visits to 12 hotspots, nine COVID-19 hospitals, six markets, and four quarantine centres across Kolkata, Howrah, East Midnapore and North 24 Parganas.
The North Bengal team, tasked with monitoring preparedness in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri, too, could not move out on Wednesday. However, the team had its first briefing in three days from the Jalpaiguri Commissioner on the overall status of the outbreak in the three districts.
The impasse continued even as state Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha claimed that the scarcity of viral transport medium (VTM) and RNA extraction kits from the Centre was the main reason behind the low testing numbers in the state, and announced 32 new cases had been detected since Tuesday. He said the problem was aggravated by the defective kits the state had received from the Union government.
The central teams, however, said the state was not moving fast enough on its requests. Some of the subjects on which they had sought a presentation from the state health department are testing scale, testing facilities, availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, availability of ICU beds, ventilators and oxygen supply, the incidence of COVID19 among health workers, and the process of determining the cause of death for COVID19 patients.
“We haven’t heard from them the whole day today. This is our third day here, and we haven’t done anything meaningful yet,” a member of the IMCT led by Additional Secretary Apurva Chandra said.
In a letter to Chief Secretary Rajiv Sinha on Wednesday morning, Chandra also requested information about the method of identifying COVID-19 suspects and quarantining them. “The IMCT would also like to understand any problems faced by the state government in implementation of the lockdown orders, availability of testing kits etc and support required from the Government of India in this regard,” added the letter.
Chandra said during his team’s field visits they should be accompanied by “relevant officers of the health department, local bodies, and other departments involved in implementing the health and disinfection measures apart from supply of essential commodities, operation of quarantine centres and the management of the relevant hospitals”, and not a police officer. On Tuesday, the IMCT had been accompanied by a state police officer of ACP rank during its hour-long tour of Kolkata to assess the implementation of the lockdown.
Chandra sent the letter after the state administration sought to de-escalate the confrontation with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Trinamool Congress government had initially questioned the deployment of the IMCTs, and suggested it “might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism”.
Later on Tuesday, Sinha said the administration was “cooperating” with the teams, but also reminded that the central teams should have informed the state of their arrival in a “proper manner”.
On the first day after landing in the state, the Kolkata IMCT led by Chandra had visited the office of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, and held a meeting with the Chief Secretary at state secretariat Nabanna.
The detailed presentation by the state health department was scrapped Tuesday morning and the team was provided a liaison officer by the state only in the evening, following which it visited five to six areas in the city. The group, however, did not step out from the car for a physical inspection.
In the first two days, the North Bengal team could neither manage to meet any officers of the state government nor conduct any inspection visits.
Meanwhile, Rajiva Sinha said the 32 new cases were reported from Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly, Asansol and Siliguri. With six patients being discharged, the total active positive cases since Tuesday is 26. “The total active positive case in the state till today is 300,” he added.
The official said most of the cases were a result of family contacts. “If we segregate these families then we will be able to control the spread,” he added. “Total tests done so far here are 7,037. In the last 24 hours, 855 tests were conducted.”
Though he blamed the Centre for the low testing numbers, saying the Narendra Modi government had provided an insufficient number of kits — 10,000 overall, with only 2,500 VTM and 3,456 RNA extraction kits — the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Ministry refused to accept the government’s rationale. The Centre pointed out that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had asked all the states at the very beginning to procure the VTM and RNA kits locally.
“Many are saying that we are hiding facts and not doing enough tests,” Sinha reiterated. “It’s not true that if we conduct more tests, more positive cases will be detected. For example, today we tested 855 samples, but only 32 people tested positive for COVID-19. We are happy with the data.”
After the lockdown was imposed, nearly 400 samples used to be tested on an average every day. But in the last two days, the figure has jumped to over 850, sources said. “Initially, we had five laboratories, now we have 12. This has helped us in carrying out more tests,” said the Chief Secretary, adding that in the last three to four days, they have “increased tests” as it had received “sufficient number of VTM and RNA extraction kits from market”.
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