Kolkata: MS Chakraborty, aged 87, received the first dose of Covishield vaccine on March 3. It is time for his second dose now and the elderly man is running from pillar to post for it as several hospitals in Kolkata have lack of vaccines in stock. Chakraborty’s wife, who lives an assisted life, is also caught in this situation as the elderly couple is at a loss about how to get vaccinated for Covid-19.
The rising number of coronavirus cases has put a massive strain on the state’s healthcare system. The daily new Covid-19 cases in the state is nearing the 10,000-mark with 9,819 fresh cases reported on Tuesday along with 46 deaths. There were 58,386 active Covid-19 cases in the state as on April 20.
As the cases rise at an unprecedented pace, it is a chilling situation of scarcity in the medical facilities for Covid treatment in West Bengal’s capital city amid the deadly second wave of the pandemic.
For MK Chatterjee, who had recently contracted Covid and was admitted to a Covid hospital for a couple of days, the condition of the hospital resembled a graveyard. “There is dearth of medicines, oxygen cylinders and what not. Even if you manage to get admitted, the lack of oxygen cylinders is affecting the whole system,” he alleged.
There are many such complaints of lack of Covid beds, shortage of vaccines and oxygen cylinders, and the lack of a proper reporting system in West Bengal. Emergency calls for help regarding beds and oxygen have flooded social media platforms as well.
Saga of Scarcity
“Such is the condition that there is an acute shortage of beds and oxygen, and the tests being done are grossly inadequate. There is no clarity on who to report to, whom to report ; the total health infrastructure is on the verge of collapse,” said Manas Gumta, secretary of the Association of Health Service Doctors (AHSD ), the nodal body of public service doctors in the state.
“Even Critical Care Unit beds are inadequate now, and so are vaccines. After a few days, there will be severe space crunch to keep dead bodies too,” said the AHSD secretary, noting that it will take at least three months for the second wave to reach its peak.
Amid this situation, the total number of Covid beds in the state stood at 7,776 on April 20. The government hospitals appear to have the highest number of beds with 50 out of 62 hospitals for Covid treatment being state run. According to sources in the West Bengal government, private facilities have a total of 3,403 bed.
Meanwhile, the government data on empty hospital beds is also not completely reliable and up to date. For instance, according to the government’s data on April 19, AMRI Salt Lake and Desun Hospital had 25 and 17 available Covid beds respectively. However, when contacted on April 20 morning, both private hospitals said they did not have any such bed available and the government data was outdated.
According to the state government’s bulletin, the occupancy of Covid beds across the state was only at around 48%. But the ground situation tells another story.
The empty beds at government hospitals cannot be enquired about directly and one has to call the Health Department Covid helpline number to be allotted a bed within 24 hours, according to the operator who NewsClick spoke to by calling the helpline. However, this may not be the best option for those frantically looking for a bed for their family members in critical condition. In such cases, as private hospitals say they have no bed, people scramble to find a personal contact, help from a political leader or share SOS calls social media platforms for a lead.
The son of 58-year-old finance professional, who has diabetes and was in a critical condition due to Covid-19, also resorted to asking for help on social media on Tuesday when his father’s doctor told the family to admit him to a hospital. As the man’s oxygen level fluctuated on Tuesday, the family called everywhere, from the health department to private hospitals to find a bed. Finally, they found a bed at a private hospital in Kolkata through personal contacts. “I was mentally prepared that I would have to search for a bed and had been making notes for the past few days. But because of privilege, we got it that day. I don't even want to think of what is happening in say Chattisgarh or UP,” the patient’s son told NewsClick.
Several private testing labs also seem to be overwhelmed with increasing number of tests. While top diagnostic labs run by Apollo and Dr Lal show messages on their websites that there will be delay in service response time and results due to the current situation, people struggle to book tests.
Madhurima Sarkar (30), who arrived in Kolkata two weeks back from Maharashtra, was not feeling well after reaching the city. When she wanted to get tested for Covid-19, she contacted three of the leading private diagnostic labs in the city, none of which could give a her a slot for testing even after trying for three days. “they kept telling me no technician was available. They did not refuse me outright,” she said, adding that she felt better after those three days and instead of getting tested, chose to monitor her health at home.
Need to Ramp Up Bed Capacity
As the state has been busy electing its next government in eight phases of polling, the election campaigns have paid scant respect to the warnings over Covid-19 spread. Hence, as the second wave of Covid-19 hit, the state appeared to have been unprepared.
The most number of saily Covid cases are being reported from Kolkata and North 24 Parganas, which saw 2,234 and 1,902 cases respectively on April 20. Among other districts, South 24 Parganas (581), Howrah (577), West Burdwan (547), and Birbhum (562) reported high number of cases.
However, experts say this statistics do not represent all the cases and focuses on the number of Covid patients admitted to the government hospitals.
Meanwhile, from April 16, when the government had asked private hospitals to increase their Covid beds by 20%, to April 20, only 100 beds were increased across the state. On Tuesday, the state government ordered government hospitals to add 20% more beds while asking private hospitals and nursing homes to further augment their Covid bed capacity by 25%.
Keeping the current scenario in mind, the AHSD has also demanded for opening up of covid blocks in all medical colleges and general hospitals in the state and written to the Chief Secretary about it. It has further demanded for the government to take over 50% of beds in private facilities for Covid patients. The AHSD has also called for establishment of a Covid control cell and to start 24*7 tele-counselling for Covid patients.
The doctors’ body also urged to the government to take stern steps so that Covid regulations are adhered to. It further asked the government to ensure insurance for frontline health workers in the state and clear all their pending dues.