Of 17 private hospitals TNM contacted, only three confirmed that they have beds, ventilators and staff necessary to treat COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 ward in Chennai(Image for representation)
Coronavirus Coronavirus Sunday, June 07, 2020 - 17:59

Both government and private hospitals in Chennai are struggling to meet the demand for beds, as the number of COVID-19 positive patients in the city continues to grow at an alarming rate. As of Saturday, Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai accounts for close to 21,000 of the 30,152 cases in the state and the city's hospitals are unable to keep up with these rising figures. Even residents, who can afford to get treated in private hospitals, have reported that there are no beds available for treatment and that they are being turned away.

TNM contacted 17 private hospitals that have currently allied with the Public Health Department to provide treatment for patients, who have tested positive for the virus. Of these, three hospitals could not be contacted over the phone -- with both the cell numbers provided by the government and landline numbers offered on the hospital's website unattended.

Only a total of three hospitals -- one in Chrompet, Chengalpattu and a third in Melmaruvathur admitted to having enough beds, equipment and staff to take in patients, who have tested positive.

Two of the hospitals - one in Kundrathur and the other in Thandalam, stated that they have enough beds to accommodate patients, but could not provide ventilator support, as the existing ventilators are either full or on standby for patients who have already been admitted. According to the government website, the hospital in Kundrathur has 109 beds available and only a total of two ventilators, of which one is occupied.

The hospital in Thandalam, meanwhile, claims to have 102 beds and nine ventilators available, as of June 6. But by the morning of June 7, they could not take in patients who required ventilator support.

The nine remaining hospitals refused to accept patients for a multitude of reasons. Six well known hospitals in the city from Alwarpet, Ayanambakkam, Shenoy Nagar, Vadapalani, Purasawalkam, Pallikaranai made it clear that they had reached full occupancy. But according to the government's last updated data, only three of these hospitals are completely filled.

For the Alwarpet hospital, all 50 beds meant for COVID-19 patients were occupied and only three ventilators were available as of June 6.  The Ayanambakkam hospital too had reached full capacity with 54 beds occupied and seven ventilators taken up by patients. According to the hospital in Shenoy Nagar, all 30 beds were occupied while only one of the nine ventilators were still unused, as of Saturday.

The hospital in Vadapalani, according to the dashboard, has 37 of 90 beds available but when TNM contacted them, they maintained that they had reached full occupancy. Similarly the hospital in Purasawalkam which should have had one bed available too reported that it was full. Another private hospital in Pallikaranai which according to government data from Sunday had 3 beds available as of 9.31 am on Sunday too reported that they could not take in more patients.

Listed but not admitting patients

What was however disturbing to note, is that three of the hospitals listed were not admitting COVID 19 patients at all.

One hospital from Chennai South, which has supposedly filled half its beds meant for COVID-19 patients and has two ventilators available, told TNM that they had not even set up their COVID-19 ward yet and that it will take 2-3 days for them to start admitting patients.

Another hospital which falls under the Sriperumbudur constituency, which supposedly has 60 beds and 2 ventilators available, said that it was not admitting any patients.

"We do not have any medical staff yet and are expecting the government to send them here. We have the infrastructure in place," said a staff member when contacted on the cell number given by the state government.

Staff from the third private hospital from Kancheepuram district, which is supposed to have 20 beds available meanwhile admitted that they were not accepting any patients and that anybody who tested positive was referred to the Chengalpattu government hospital.

Government hospitals struggling too

The situation is no less worrying in the government hospitals that TNM contacted. Though most big government hospitals have a large number of beds, only around 20-30% is allotted for COVID-19 patients. Despite many experts saying that this number has to be increased, the government has not. A senior doctor in the Stanley Medical College and hospital in Chennai stated that there 400 beds alloted for COVID-19 patients but refused to divulge how many were actually available. He however did point out that medical staff were stretched thin and that they were forced to take shifts to treat patients as half the force had to remain under quarantine at any point of time.

"We are somehow making space for anybody who comes. We cannot turn patients away," he stated.

While most government hospitals have taken this stand, the Dean of the Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital, which is supposed to have 400 beds, admitted that as of Sunday morning there were only 40 beds available. Official authorities at the Omandurar medical college and hospital too have stated that they have only 35-40 beds currently remaining. The hospital had a total of 500 beds available.

With the number of cases only predicted to rise in the city, the figures have become a source for worry and doctors from private hospitals  state that the lack of planning and preparation is the cause for this concern. Others have argued that the government must allot more beds in hospitals for COVID-19 treatment. 

'Government failed to create capacity'

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior doctor and health administrator at a popular hospital in Chennai says the government has failed to create enough capacity in the two-month lockdown period, and is now knocking on the doors of the private hospital at the last moment, as cases spike. “It is not that we don’t want to help, and it is not even about the cost. But we simply don’t have the staff or infrastructure to create and run isolation facilities for so many patients in such a short period of time,” the doctor said.

“We can create an isolation ward or isolated bed, but I don’t have the staff for it. We need four shifts to man each patient, because with PPE and other tough measures, a nurse cannot work for more than 4-6 hours. They are overworked already, how can we hire more people overnight?” he explains.

He further adds that asking private hospitals in different parts of the city to take in patients is a sure-shot way of spreading the disease further. “With every new patient getting admitted in a private hospital, our staff are facing more risk. And if they get infected, then so do their family members, and that is how the virus will spread,” he pointed out.

“We have already allotted 25% of our capacity for COVID patients. We have other patients with other emergencies as well, we can’t let them die. There is little we can do beyond this, the government has to see how they can create capacity. They did not do the job for two months, at least they can do it now," he alleged.

When TNM contacted the state government with the above data and allegations, a senior IAS officer, who is part of the team handling the COVID-19 situation, stated that the health department should ideally place officials in all hospitals to track the number of beds available and see if they ensuring admission without any hurdles for patients.

"There are also COVID-19 care centres which have a capacity of 12,000 where patients can be shifted to if necessary. This can be done for asymptomatic patients," he pointed out.

TNM has reached out to the Health department for comment but could not obtain a response at the time the article was published. 

(With inputs from Ramanathan Subramanian)