A worth-emulating feat of Keralite doc who heads the TN Covid war room

Darez Ahmad
Dr. Darez Ahmad

Even as the daily COVID-19 cases have been rising alarmingly in Kerala, the neighbouring Tamil Nadu managed to bring back normalcy with the caseload showing a downward trend. An average of 20,000 daily cases is being reported in Kerala now. Meanwhile, it hasn’t gone past 2000 in Tamil Nadu of late. Rumours have been doing the rounds here that Tamil Nadu shows lesser number of cases as the number of tests is low. However, Dr. Darez Ahmad who is the special officer of the Tamil Nadu COVID war room dismisses these as baseless rumours. The IAS officer who hails from Manjeri in Kerala had completed MBBS from Kasturba Medical College in Manipal. It was in 2005 that Dr. Darez entered the civil services. He had also won Prime Minister’s award for excellent service in public administration. His father is a native of Muvattupuzha while his mother hails from Thiruvananthapuram.

“I can surely explain the situation in Tamil Nadu. However, I don’t think it is right to compare it with the Covid management in Kerala. Every state has its own methods and strategies to tackle the problem. There is no point in comparing the ways in which states handle natural disasters or pandemics,” Dr. Darez makes his stand clear.

Is it true that Tamil Nadu records a lesser number of Covid cases as the number of tests too is lower?

Not at all. Around 1.60 lakh tests are done every day. At the beginning itself, it was decided that only RTPCR tests would be done here. We had ruled out antigen tests. This was an amazing first step towards effective prevention. The number of tests was increased in Tamil Nadu even during the initial phase of the outbreak. The spread of the virus was controlled by conducting around 1 lakh tests daily and quarantining those who tested positive. Antigen tests could show faulty results. So, those who do not show symptoms, despite being infected, could mingle with society and spread the virus. Moreover, RTPCR tests have become a ‘passport’ during these pandemic times. Many states and countries have made RTPCR tests mandatory for travelers. (Kerala relies too much on antigen tests. On 5 August, 1,02,745 antigen tests were done while the number of RTPCR tests was just 59,001.)

It takes up to 6 hours to get the results of RTPCR tests. However, the antigen tests would provide results in just half an hour. Isn’t an antigen test the best option during a critical situation like this?

The RTPCR machines that were used in the initial days of the outbreak took six hours to provide results. However, now, the latest machines that give results in three hours are available in the market. We purchased those machines to speed up the testing.

What has Tamil Nadu done about the seroprevalence survey that shows the extent of recovery among people?

ICMR has done a seroprevalence survey in Tamil Nadu too. However, the number of samples that were collected for it was relatively less. Using those samples, the recovery rate among the people cannot be correctly determined. So, the Tamil Nadu government had done a seroprevalence survey on our own and the results were published recently. An average of 30,000 samples was collected from each district for the survey. As per the study, around 67% of people in the state have been recovered from COVID 19. In Chennai city, it is 82%. (An expert committee had asked Kerala to conduct its own sero-survery, around three months ago. But, it isn’t done yet. The results published by ICMR are still used to study the trends. 1,038 samples were collected by ICMR from Ernakulam, Thrissur and Palakkad districts. As per this, around 44.4% of people have acquired immunity.)

How does Tamil Nadu use the results of the seroprevalence survey to its benefit?

Our aim is to make vaccination as effective as possible. Vaccination has been ramped up in the districts that showed less immunity rate. This would help more people acquire immunity against the virus.

Compared to Kerala, the number of deaths is more in Tamil Nadu?

The population is an important factor that needs to be considered while determining the rate at which the virus spreads or the number of deaths. The population in Tamil Nadu is 7 crore. So, the death rate hasn’t alarmingly gone up if you consider the population factor. 34,230 people have so far died in Tamil Nadu due to COVID 19. (The population in Kerala is 3.49 and 17,328 people have died)

There was a time when proper treatment facilities weren’t available there. How did you manage that?

The hospitals were overwhelmed when the number of patients had skyrocketed. However, around 80% of COVID 19 patients were treated at government hospitals.

Tamil Nadu is the first state that made COVID 19 vaccination free at private hospitals too. Wouldn’t it create severe financial stress for the government?

The pandemic restrictions could be eased if people are swiftly vaccinated. This would help people go back to their jobs or find employment. So, the amount that is spent on vaccines becomes effective in ways like this.

How is the pace of vaccination there?

Around 70 lakh people were vaccinated last month. Online booking or recommendations by elected representatives aren’t required to get vaccinated. Vaccines are available in all primary health centres. People could just walk in and get vaccinated.

What is Tamil Nadu’s strength in the public health sector?

It is the public health directorate that manages everything here. They would analyze the conditions at the grass-root level and inform the government. The decisions would then be taken based on that. Those who have done their post-graduation in public health after completing MBBS are appointed to the public health directorate. They are not required to treat patients. But, they are constantly in touch with the public health sector. It is this well-managed system that helps Tamil Nadu fight the pandemic effectively. 

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