5 doctors testing positive raises questions about safety of frontline workers

Sameer (name changed) was planning to spend Eid-ul-Fitr at his home, a faraway place from Srinagar. However, having served on the frontline at SKIMS Medical College Hospital, a COVID19 facility, he wanted to be sure he is not taking the virus to his family.

“I have elderly parents. The virus could prove deadly for them,” Sameer told Greater Kashmir over phone, hours after he tested positive for COVID19.

Although asymptomatic, Sameer would be in quarantine for two weeks. He is admitted to a ward that SKIMS Medical College Hospital has designated for healthcare workers who may test positive.

“My family looked forward to my visit. I still have not told them that I will not be able to come,” he said.

With five doctors testing positive for COVID19 in Kashmir’s tertiary-care hospitals today, this has called into question the safety of frontline workers amidst raging COVID19 cases in J&K.

A senior medico said that although four of the five doctors who tested positive today got infected accidentally, Sameer was working with COVID19 positive patients, and hence was aware of the risk he was faced with. “These doctors are doing acts of heroism but are we protecting our doctors well enough,” he asked.

Although Sameer does not say much about the quality of personal protection gear the frontline staff is provided, he said, the one that they received earlier was “sturdier” by which he meant that “we had to don it a little carefully and it could break at places.”

He does not suspect a breach in his PPE that got him infected. “I have been doing rounds of the wards with my PPE on and carefully following SOPs,” he said.

He feels the donning and doffing areas, where doctors change into protective gear and out of it, was ‘not well kempt’. “The used PPEs are not cleared off regularly and often are littered around. We need to look into it,” he said.

However, the hospital authorities are not ready to accept the “contamination” chances in the hospital. “The test also shows false positives. Even dead bacteria can give a positive,” Dr Shifa Deva, medical superintendent of SKIMS MC said. She said the hospital has taken “all precautions required”.

At SMHS Hospital, where three doctors, two faculty members and one resident, tested positive, after a patient ENT department had operated upon died at CD Hospital. The patient had tested positive for COVID19. The hospital administration said the fact that doctors who had operated upon the COVID19 positive case tested negative shows PPE was working well.

Dr Nazir Chaudhary, medical superintendent SMHS Hospital said the doctors who tested positive had done dressing of the patient post her surgery. “We are a non-COVID19 hospital. Sometimes, this may lower the guard in doctors who feel they are not under threat,” he said.

However, a doctor working in ENT department of the hospital said the doctors who are not doing surgeries or who are not dealing directly with suspected cases are not provided full gear PPE. “The doctors who got infected dressed the wound of the patient wearing a mask and a gown. Clearly, that was not adequate,” he said. A doctor who had extracted tooth of the deceased patient also tested positive.

The increasing number of doctors getting infected at hospitals has set alarm bells ringing among the healthcare workers. Till date, at least 11 doctors have been infected with COVID19 in Kashmir. Many more healthcare workers, including nurses have also been infected.

A senior physician said it was “a glimpse of things to come.”

He said the fate of how J&K responds to epidemic would depend on the safety of doctors. “If we are not protecting our doctors, this battle is already lost,” he said adding that no one could replace the doctor in the chain of responsibilities.

He expressed concern over what he called “administrative inertia” over free and quality supply of essential protective gear and ensuring WHO recommended roster system.