Airports across the southern states of India have taken several steps to screen passengers for symptoms of the Coronavirus. However none of the airports in four major metro cities in south India including Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi have isolated quarantine centres within the premises to move passengers to, if they are found to be infected.
TNM spoke to airport authorities in four cities to understand what infrastructure exists in the premises. An isolated quarantine centre should ideally be away from the main building of the airport and not share the same air-conditioning or sewage link with the rest of the buildings. In most cases however, only a quarantine centre and an ambulance has been kept on stand-by to transfer patients to a hospital if they test positive for Coronavirus. The difference between a quarantine centre and an isolated quarantine centre is that the former is used to observe if people develop symptoms, while the latter is used to separate people who are already displaying symptoms in order to prevent it from spreading further.
According to ToI, a plan to construct such a quarantine and isolation centre was made in 2014 in Chennai after the Ebola virus breakout. However while land was identified for the centre, it has reportedly been delayed over lack of clarity over who will be constructing it.
In Chennai, official sources in the airport, admitted that there was no isolated quarantine ward, but maintained that this was acceptable. "Even the Health Secretary came and checked the airport today and gave instructions. It is not mandatory to have an isolated ward," the official told TNM.
Speaking to the media, Health Secretary Beela Rajesh said, "We are using thermal scanners to check if patients are running a temperature. We also have an option for self-declaration. If someone is found to have a fever, they are taken to a quarantined examination room where they are examined for symptoms. They are given personal protection equipment including body suits, goggles and gloves. If someone is found positive, they are transferred in a dedicated ambulance to the isolation ward in Rajiv Gandhi hospital."
Doctors however point out that the existing mechanism is not completely safe. "Ideally the isolation ward should be within 3-4 km from the hospital to minimise exposure of the virus to healthy persons. Taking a passenger from Chennai airport to Rajiv Gandhi hospital, would mean traveling at least 25 km," said Dr Ravindranath, President of the Doctor's Association for Social Equality.
“In addition to this, there are thousands of patients who are put at risk at the Rajiv Gandhi hospital itself, if you take a contagious patient there. They must find a medical facility nearby and exclusively use it to treat patients who have contracted this virus," he added.
At the Kempegowda International airport in Bengaluru too, patients will not be isolated if found to have symptoms and instead will be transferred to Aster hospital, which is in the Airport itself.
"Currently, all passengers travelling to Bengaluru from China are being screened. Health check up of each passenger is being conducted at Immigration. If there is a suspected case of Coronavirus, the patient will be immediately transferred to Aster Hospital, which is located in the airport itself, where the patient will be kept in isolation," a BIAL official said.
An official in the Cochin International airport meanwhile stated that Isolation wards are not mandatory in airports. He however admitted that the Coronavirus is highly contagious.
"For Coronavirus, an isolation ward at the airport is not prescribed and it is not mandatory. The ward has to be set up in the nearest hospital with certain facilities. But we do have quarantine wards which were used for Yellow fever," he told TNM. "As the virus is highly contagious, those who are infected are not being kept at airports. Instead they will be sent to the identified hospital immediately by a sterilised ambulance," he added.
In Hyderabad too officials at the Airport Public Health Organisation told TNM that an isolated quarantine centre is under progress but currently the set up does not exist.
"There are no quarantine or isolation centres. Byt we have a screening room and if a passenger is suspected to be infected, an integrated system is available with an ambulance and they are shifted to a referred or designated centre," says Dr. Anuradha Medoju, Sr Regional Director, AP & Telangana, MoHFW, GoI,” said Dr Anuradha Medoju, Senior Regional Director for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
(With inputs from Theja Ram, Mithun MK, Saritha Balan)