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BMC chief: If someone laughs at us, how do I share Mumbai model

“I told the Delhi government that no hospital should be forced to add beds. The SOS calls from hospitals are because they are forced to increase oxygenated beds overnight, which is not supplemented with oxygen storage,” Chahal said.

BMC Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal.

The Covid curve in his city on its way down, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal said that the “Mumbai model” could work in other cities and states only if there was honesty about the severity of the coronavirus problem.

“Two months back I used to get calls from my colleagues in the government of India, asking why only Maharashtra has Covid. And they would laugh at us. If someone is laughing at us, how do I share my model with them?… When calamity hits, there is no time to learn, don’t have the cushion time to copy those models,” he said at the Idea Exchange interaction with The Indian Express newsroom Thursday. (A detailed transcript will be published May 10.)

Also read |Mumbai: BMC discontinues walk-in vaccinations

He said he had attended a meeting of Delhi government and Central officials on Wednesday night, hours after the Supreme Court told them to “draw from the (Mumbai) experience.”

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“I told the Delhi government that no hospital should be forced to add beds. The SOS calls from hospitals are because they are forced to increase oxygenated beds overnight, which is not supplemented with oxygen storage,” Chahal said.

Mumbai’s oxygen problems were “history” now, he added, because of optimum utilisation of available oxygen, seamless distribution and creation of buffer stock, coupled with the BMC’s ability to pull together its existing resources.

While there had been no deaths in Mumbai due to oxygen shortage, Chahal recounted one long night when a crisis left them on edge. On the intervening night of April 16-17, as many as 168 patients were evacuated in an emergency operation from six civic hospitals where oxygen supplies were running low, and rushed in cardiac ambulances to Mumbai’s ‘jumbo’ Covid care facilities. Choking up with tears as he recalled the incident, Chahal said 40 of the patients were critical. Eventually, all were safely transferred between 1 am and 5 am, he said. “I am so happy that we could save 100 per cent of these lives.”

Read |With 55% Covid positivity rate, Vasai Virar one of worst-hit areas in Mumbai Metropolitan Region

“After this incident, on April 17, the BMC went to the state task force, asking for a protocol for oxygen consumption. The oxygen saturation level need not be maintained beyond 94%, high-flow nasal oxygen which is a guzzler should not be blindly used, and there should be an oxygen consumption audit — this was circulated to all 176 hospitals in the city,” he said.

Chahal said he had also reached out to Delhi, including officials he had worked with during postings at the Centre, to ensure there were no oxygen issues. “I sent out messages to top bureaucrats — Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, Home Secretary and Health Secretary, eight top politicians of the state, including the CM, Deputy CM.”

Praising Gauba, who was Chahal’s boss when both were in the Union Home Ministry, the Commissioner said he was quick to respond. Asked whether there had been any issues because of the Centre-state tussle, as being seen in Delhi, Chahal said he had not had such problems.

According to the Commissioner, his suggestion to the Centre was import of oxygen. “The turnaround time for oxygen supply from the allocated unit in Haldia is eight days, which was not feasible. I suggested (to the Cabinet Secretary) oxygen from Reliance industries in Jamnagar, which is just 16 hours away from Mumbai. By 1 pm that that day, 125 metric tonnes of oxygen was allocated to us from Jamnagar.”

The BMC head also praised Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for giving him a “tremendous free hand” and said: “I must tell you that I am very lucky in many ways. Virtually, I can take any decision. That is the kind of free hand (the CM) has given me, which is not available to my colleagues in many cities of the country.”

Chahal, who took charge as Commissioner in May last year when the Mumbai Covid situation was fast deteriorating, said the creation of ward war rooms, dashboards for beds, banning of labs from handing over Covid test reports to positive patients , and the decision not to dismantle jumbo Covid facilities after the first wave were all crucial in handling the second wave. He said the system was on “auto pilot” now.

About not allowing labs to share test reports, Chahal said, “They shared the report at 7 pm… Hearing the news, there were panic calls and scrambling for beds. There were thousands of phone calls on one single helpline number, collapsing the central control room. When I joined… we did not have a dashboard, our control room operators used to check with individual hospitals if a bed is empty. It was a harrowing experience for me between May 10 and 25… Patients not running for hospitals beds also helped us control the spread of the virus. Otherwise, a single patient would have infected 200 more in his/her hunt for hospitals beds.”

He said Mumbai was already preparing for the third wave, with more jumbo facilities and oxygen plants, adding nearly 5,500 beds, of which 70% will be oxygenated.

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