The state of Himachal Pradesh is reeling under pressure caused by an alarming rise in Covid-19 cases, increasing death toll, soaring infection rate, and increasing number of daily returnees from seven hotspot states. The state’s healthcare system is already witnessing a shortage of beds in hospitals, overcrowded Covid wards, and exhausted medical staff. In a conversation with Outlook’s Ashwani Sharma, Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur talks about the prevailing situation in the state.
Q) Himachal Pradesh has about 13, 500 active cases, it’s reporting about 2000 new positive cases daily and 26-32 fatalities every day. Isn’t it alarming?
Definitely. It’s quite alarming. What is more worrying are the reports that this new virus in the second wave is spreading faster among the younger people in the age group 37- 45. Can’t tell you how the numbers really pain me when I get a daily briefing in the review meetings.
Q) Situation in the hospitals is worrisome. Patients and their families are complaining about the shortage of beds, proper medical care in the Covid wards. How do you plan to address this problem?
But there is no shortage of beds anywhere. We have a sufficient number of oxygenated beds. The bed capacity has been increased wherever they were needed. We doubled the number of beds from 1500 to 3000. Soon, another 1000 will be added in Kangra where the government has partnered up with Radha Swami Trust. We are going to raise it to 5000 in collaboration with some private hospitals in Shimla and other places.
Q) Hospitals across the country have also run into a shortage of medical oxygen and medicines. What is the state of Himachal Pradesh?
No patient has died in Himachal Pradesh because of an oxygen shortage. Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC) hospital which is the state's premier institution, has its own mega plant supplying piped oxygen to the patients. All emergency needs are being met there 24X7. Three oxygen plants will be functional each at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital (DDU), Shimla, Medical College and Medical College in Nahan in the next few days. Teams have reached Shimla to commission oxygen plants at DDU, Shimla and will also go to Nerchowk. Dharamshala hospital also has a functional oxygen plant. Himachal Pradesh is providing oxygen supply to hospitals in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana and Chandigarh from industrial areas in Solan and Sirmaur. We have no shortage of drugs in the hospitals.
Q) Many people from Himachal working in other states are returning because of the Covid surge. What steps have been taken to ensure that people coming from outside don’t become a cause of spread?
We had made it mandatory to show an RT-PCR negative test report not older than 72 hours for those coming from hotspots like Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, UP, Punjab and Karnataka. But we have not started checking at any of the borders. We are going to enforce it strictly and make 14-day home isolation mandatory for those returning to their homes. They will not be stopped or subjected to any checking. Local panchayats and Urban Local Bodies will be actively involved in enforcing this.
Q) There are reports that some people are flouting the rule to show negative test reports.
We have case studies showing that those who tried to hide the infection or did not isolate themselves at home transmitted the infection to family elders/aged parents and also to children. The government is going to be strict about this. They would have the option to get the RT-PCR test done after seven days. It’s in the larger interest of the people, their families, relatives and those with whom they come in contact. The citizens too have a responsibility to follow Covid appropriate behaviour.
Q) Various reports have suggested three or four days delay in testing. Your comments?
The sudden spurt in the virus infection and a huge number of cases has put the existing testing facility under huge stress. We have decided to increase the capacity from 10,000 to 15,000 tests per day. This will help in clearing the daily backlog. I agree the testing is very important and patients should get their reports as fast as possible.
Q) Opposition has accused you of complete mishandling of the Covid crisis and not prioritising saving the lives of people. What do you have to say about that?
I don't want to enter into any argument with the opposition. Our priorities and focus is very clear. The state government has handled the crisis well in the past. The variant of this virus in the second wave is deadly and spreads very fast. Just look at the situation in Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Q) Should people be expecting a lockdown soon?
The situation has not risen to this level as yet. But, we have taken a decision to impose a night curfew between 10 pm to 5 am in four hotspot districts –Kangra, Una, Solan and Sirmaur from April 27. Deputy Commissioners have been advised to take decisions on imposing urgent restrictions based on their own assessments. I feel lockdown should be the last resort as it creates so many other problems for the people and also for the administration.
Q) What do medical experts say about the second wave and when will it end?
The second wave has a high rate of infection, spreads faster and has a higher fatality rate. We are working hard to create additional Covid care facilities, provide timely medical care for every single patient whether he is in the hospital or in home isolation. We have a strategy in place to check the further spread of infection in villages. The feedback is that the next 10 to 15 days are definitely going to be difficult. I appeal to the people not to unnecessarily venture out at crowded places and markets, wear face masks and maintain social distancing. All those eligible must get vaccinated immediately as the state government has taken a decision to provide free vaccination to all above 18 years of age.