As the Tripura government fights charges of negligence and lack of infrastructure at the state’s only coronavirus-dedicated hospital, among rising cases, the High Court on Friday took suo motu cognizance of the matter. It directed the state government to submit an affidavit by September 18, including a detailed break-up of treatment centres, and the infrastructure, medicines, workforce and funds available to fight Covid-19.
The order, by a Division Bench including Chief Justice Akil Qureshi, followed weeks of posts on social media highlighting the conditions at Govind Ballabh Pant (GBP) Hospital in Agartala, attached to Agartala Government Medical College (AGMC).
Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, who also holds the health portfolio, is now touring district hospitals in a bid to limit the load on GBP. On Wednesday, after visiting Dhalai hospital, 190 km from Agartala, Deb said ventilators, oxygen support-enabled beds, oxymeters, injections and medicines would be dispatched to districts on an emergency basis.
In its submission to the court, Tripura said it had 2,865 hospital beds available for Covid-19 patients (its active cases number over 6,800), including hospitals and Covid care centres. However, all its 19 available ventilators are at GBP Hospital. The court also noted that against an augmented capacity of 240 beds for Covid, the hospital has 279 patients.
Images and videos purportedly of GBP Hospital being shared on social media include bodies lying sealed in containment bags. On September 7, BJP MLA Sudip Roy Barman, who was removed as health minister last year and visited GBP on Monday, said the Covid hospital was facing a shortage of doctors and nurses, and said people were seeking voluntary discharge at own peril.
Since August 1, the coronavirus has seen a sharp spike in Tripura, with deaths rising from 24 to 182, and the state having the largest numbers after Assam in the Northeast. While the fatality rate is only 1.02 per cent, in a state with an estimated population of 35 lakh, the positivity rate has more than doubled from 2.1 per cent to 5.39 per cent. Tripura is testing above 88,000 per million, which is more than most states, but it is mostly rapid antigen tests. It has only one Covid-testing laboratory, at AGMC, for the more reliable RT-PCR test.
GBP Medical Superintendent Dr Debashis Roy admitted the hospital had more patients than its capacity, which was increased to handle the Covid load. CPM leader and former CM Manik Sarkar has said the hospital can handle only 180 patients.
A source at GBP Hospital told The Indian Express the hospital was also battling shortage of vehicles to transport bodies. Only one ambulance that can accommodate two bodies is used, the source said. With up to 10 patients dying on days, it takes time to clear the bodies. GBP Hospital authorities refused to comment on the matter.
Tripura Health Director Subhashish Debbarma admitted that bodies of some Covid patients might have taken time to clear, but denied any were left unattended for long. “I don’t think these are left for hours or days. About treatment, I believe we are treating as per the protocol,” Debbarma told The Indian Express.
Family Welfare and Preventive Medicine Director Dr Radha Debbarma said the department has referred allegations of oxygen shortage, negligence etc to a committee and is waiting for its report.
Among those who have accused GBP Hospital of negligence is Agartala-based Subir Saha, 28, who said his father died on August 28 after the hospital couldn’t provide him an oxygen cylinder for three-and-a-half hours as he struggled to breathe. Saha claimed his father, who was in his 60s, was left unattended for seven days. “I was later permitted to take care of him, where I saw him gasp to death.” The hospital authorities refused to comment on the case.
A private tutor who lives in Dhalewar area and was discharged from GBP Hospital after 14 days claimed to have spent a night in a ward with bodies of two Covid patients. “We stayed up with lights on… no one was available,” he said.
Doctors at GBP Hospital told The Indian Express that one reason for the recent surge was that in July, when a month-long survey was held in the state, many people were reluctant to come forward to report coronavirus symptoms. They said “extremely late” hospitalisation remained the primary cause of deaths.
However, what has the authorities worried is the possibility of community transmission. Professor Sanjib Kumar Debbarma of the AGMC Technical Expert Committee said “a large number” of the new patients have no contact or travel history.
Chief of AGMC Microbiology Department Dr Tapan Majumder appealed to people to seek institutional healthcare early. “We are working to keep the death rate low. But there have been severe cases of pneumonia, apart from comorbidities,” Majumdar said.
Advocate General Arun Kanti Bhowmik said they welcomed the court’s intervention. “Healthcare system in Tripura has been very backward since half-a-century or more… The state government is trying its best, but within its limitations,” he said.
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