covid19 testing
covid19 testing

Chennai family turned away from COVID-19 testing twice, despite symptoms & contact history

33-year-old Narendran's in-laws tested positive for the virus last week. But despite his wife, child and him being in contact with them, the corporation's testing centres refuse to test them.

For 33-year-old Narendran, a software professional from Chennai, it's been a stressful week. Three people in his family tested positive for the coronavirus, and yet, the Chennai Corporation is refusing to test him, his wife and their 6-year-old child.

Three people in Narendra's family tested positive for coronavirus last week – his 27-year-old brother-in-law, 57-year-old mother-in-law and 61-year-old father-in-law. The family resides in Thiru-Vi-Ka Nagar, an area in Chennai that has recorded over 1000 cases of COVID-19. They all live on separate floors in the same building, and they shared meals together every day.

"My father-in-law and mother-in-law were admitted to the Rajiv Gandhi Government General hospital on May 20, after he tested positive on May 18," says Narendran. "My brother-in-law who lived with them was also tested and he is under home quarantine after he was found to be positive. But when we asked the Corporation staff to test me, my wife and child, they refused," he says.

Narendran says that he and his wife were feeling breathless and his child had a headache and throat pain. This is when they decided to go to the COVID-19 testing centre at Thiru-Vi-Ka Nagar school on Monday, but the centre refused to test them, despite guidelines clearly stating that those with symptoms should be tested.

"The people at the centre tried to make us leave. They said the testing area is full of infection and that we shouldn't even come there. The person taking the tests told me he himself has coronavirus and that he is eating medicine while still working in the centre. How can they scare people away like this?" asks Narendran. "This is despite the fact that we are all contacts of three patients and are exhibiting symptoms," he adds.   

But despite their attitude, Narendran believed he had a solution.

When his father-in-law was taken to RGGGH, the hospital had made the elderly man with severe symptoms wait for 8 hours before providing him a bed or even food. "It was a terrible situation but I had tweeted about it and immediately received help from the Health Department. And this time, I did the same. I tweeted asking for help and the Deputy Commissioner of the Revenue Department, Meghanath Reddy responded promptly," says Narendran.

In fact, Narendran’s tweet got the attention of at least two IAS officers. The techie was then put in touch with Dr Nadhini Chezhiyan by the Corporation, who gave him a prescription to allow his family to be tested. But when Narendran went to the testing centre on Tuesday morning, he was shown the door again.

"I went there around 11.30 am but a nurse said that she had already removed the PPE kit and couldn't do any more tests," he says. The timing for tests, according to the zone officials is 9 am to 12 noon. "When I told her I had a prescription, she told me to come the next day and said even if I do, the test will only be conducted for me. If I test positive, then my family will be tested or they won't be tested at all. I couldn't believe how they were behaving," he adds.   

To make matters worse, the Corporation has not tracked down the source of the infection, creating more anxiety for the family.

"This is very stressful and I am not able to concentrate on anything," says Narendran. "My fears are not about my wife or me. I am scared for my six-year-old daughter who has throat pain and a headache," he laments.

While the Corporation staff in charge of ensuring the family gets rations and necessities have been prompt and efficient, the officials in charge of testing have been apathetic, alleges the family.

And Narendran is not the only Chennai resident being given a raw deal, simply for asking to be tested. Across the city, several residents have alleged that even contacts of patients are not being tested.

"My colleague's wife tested positive last week," says Ramesh*, an employee at a media organisation. "Considering how contagious the virus is the Corporation should test the husband's colleagues too, but no effort has been made. When I went to a Poonamallee testing centre and enquired, they refused to test me because I had no symptoms," he adds.

This despite the fact that atleast 88% of residents who tested positive are asymptomatic, according to Health Minister Vijayabhaskar.

"If they don't even test us and tell us whether we are positive, how can we be careful? What if I unknowingly infect someone who is elderly or has comorbidities?" asks Ramesh.

Speaking to TNM, the founder of a private testing centre alleges that the number of tests being done is being purposely limited.

"First the government wants to cut down their costs. Each test will cost Rs 4500 and they don't want to spend this unless it's absolutely necessary," he says. "The second reason is that none of the zone officials want to record more cases. They are under pressure to show lower numbers and the only way to do that is to not test as much, " he adds.

When TNM spoke to a zone official from Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, he first claimed that it was against their protocol to test residents without symptoms. But when TNM pointed out that the family had been contacts of two patients and had mild symptoms, the official promised to intervene and took down details of the family.

"I was able to get on Twitter and share my grievances. So I could get some kind of recourse," acknowledges Narendran, "But what about the thousands of others who don't have the access and privilege that I do?"

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