‘Forced to Reuse Masks’: Lack of Protective Gear Cripples Health Services in Kashmir

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Tableeghi members line up at a healthcare facility in Sopore town of Kashmir on Wednesday following the reports of four new positive cases of Covid from the valley. Photo Credit. Twitter (Mohammad Abu Bakar)

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

NEW DELHI — Health workers on duty in villages and district hospitals across rural Kashmir lack personal protection equipment (PPE), making them vulnerable to infection and crippling their ability to work normally amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

PPE consists of gloves, masks, eye protection device, and the hazmat cover-all suits worn to protect health care workers from getting infected.

These workers pleaded that rural hospitals be supplied with better protective gear to enable doctors and paramedical staff work smoothly.

The concern among the health workers spiked following confirmation of four more Covid-19 positive cases in Kashmir on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, it was reported that a  Tableeghi Jamaat member was detected Covid-positive. He had traveled extensively in the last couple of weeks, and also visited Delhi and Deoband before returning to Kashmir where he stayed at a mosque in Sopore with his associates. During the stay, the suspect developed symptoms and visited a private clinic. Then he went to his home in Srinagar. On March 23, he was confirmed Covid-19 positive.

The medic who saw him at the clinic is a government doctor posted in Sogam Lolab in Kupwara district. When the news of his confirmation of being Covid-positive broke, panic gripped the Lolab area after a rumour spread that the doctor was also Covid-positive. The block medical officer had to circulate a message on social media to dispel the rumour announcing that the doctor has gone into quarantine. “The people of Lolab need not panic and should visit hospitals only in case of an emergency,” the medical officer announced.

Speaking to Clarion India on phone, a doctor posted in northern Kashmir said the medical staff are forced to reuse surgical masks due to shortage of supplies. “We are at risk of infection due to the shortage of protective gear,” the doctor, who desired anonymity, said.

A laboratory technician posted in the Tral area of Pulwama said they change a surgical mask after 24 hours despite the stipulation a mask has to be binned after four hours.

After the confirmation of a positive case of a youth from Bandipora district, it came to the fore that the patient was ferried by block medical officer to Government Medical College Baramulla from a quarantine facility in Bandipora in an official vehicle — instead of an ambulance; in a clear violation of Medical Standard Operating Procedure, on orders of chief medical officer. While the administration has ordered a probe, the news has amplified the concern of the health workers.

Another doctor said that when they ask for protective gear, the response from the higher-ups is: “The protective gear is only for staff of hospitals that treat the suspected Covid patients.” But, the doctor said, the patient with Covid symptoms will first visit a primary health centre or a sub district hospital before he or she is referred to tertiary care.

A doctor working in Bandipora confirmed that the medical staff has been provided protection gear while dealing with Covid-related cases. He said that on Tuesday, during a field operation, the health workers were covered in full protective gear. The health workers say that their main worry is of the health of their family members. “My shift will end after three days and I have to take extra caution when I go home,” said a doctor posted in Kupwara.

SHORTAGE OF PROTECTIVE GEAR

India is facing a shortage in supply of protective gear required to shield health workers from infection. Medical equipment associations have alleged that red tape is delaying the supply of the equipment, according to an investigation by Scroll.in.

Muneer Andrabi, a paramedic, who is president of an association of rural health workers, appealed to the government to supply personal protection equipment (PPE) to all health centres across Jammu and Kashmir. “We are on the front lines fighting this tough battle but lack of protection equipment restricts us to work efficiently,” Andrabi complained.

Clarion India tried to reach top officials of the health service department for comment but there was no response.

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