The COVID-19 infection has put an extraordinary burden on the healthcare system in India. The vaccination process continues across the country amid the pandemic situation. However, in Jammu and Kashmir, the situation was managed effectively to a larger extent. To understand the current scenario of Covid-19 situation, vaccination process and measures taken by the government for the mitigation of pandemic and third wave, Rising Kashmir’s Health Correspondent, Mansoor Peer talks to Director General, Family Welfare MCH and Immunisation, J&K Dr Saleem ur Rehman.
There was a huge Covid-19 crisis when you joined the department? How did you take the challenge?
When I joined the department, we were at the end of the first Covid wave and the beginning of the second wave. Since, I had already worked in the department in different capacities as Assistant Director Family Welfare, Deputy Director Schemes, Director Health Services Kashmir, so it was normal to handle this as we also had the past experience of handling disasters. We were well aware of the terrain and geography of Jammu and Kashmir. So, it was not difficult to take up the challenge.
Since January this year, the vaccination process has continued. Explain how you managed to vaccinate such a large population?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the nationwide vaccination in January and launched in Jammu and Kashmir on the same day. We followed protocols and guidelines issued by the Government of India from time to time. We took around a month before vaccination started for preparation which included training of staff, managing logistics and motivation of Health Care Workers (HCWs) for a huge task in front.
Though, there were a lot of misconceptions and myths initially regarding the vaccine and its side effects. The department launched a comprehensive campaign and involved opinion leaders, religious figures, local influencers and wide coverage on print and electronic media helped us to convince people to come forward for vaccination.
The directorate strategized the vaccination process, keeping in view the huge load of population. We started with HCWs, Front Line Workers (FLWs) and the population beyond 18 years in a staggered manner. The purpose to start with HCWs was to safeguard these front-line workers during the pandemic.
What are your targets for the vaccination?
We want to achieve 100%, beyond 18+ age group, for the first dose of vaccination up to October 15 and we are also aiming at vaccinating the full population by the end of this year. Special vaccination programs for lactating and pregnant women, psychiatric patients and jail inmates, teachers and students and specially-abled persons have been done.
There has been a rise in COVID cases in Srinagar, again. How are you dealing with it?
Yes, the data shows for the last 20 days that there is a steady increase of cases in district Srinagar but simultaneously the good thing is that increase in cases does not collaborate with the increased hospitalization, severity of infection and deaths.
What measures are being taken to tackle the possible third wave?
The Health Department is monitoring the trend of cases on a daily basis under the leadership of the Lieutenant Governor, Chief Secretary, Additional Chief Secretary, Health and Medical Education Department along with all the stakeholders. All the logistics required are being put in place.
The strategy of testing and contact tracing is being followed up vigorously as per the protocols which enable us to have a close watch on the progress of disease.
How challenging was it to fight the virus?
We have to understand one thing that this is not the first pandemic nor will it be the last. We have handled the H1N1 epidemic and the department of Health, Family Welfare & Medical education in J&K is trained enough and has expertise at all levels to tackle such kinds of epidemics.
Handling this epidemic has brought us a lot of opportunities also, it made us more robust, helped us to gain more knowledge, skill and expertise. Lot of infrastructure has been created by the UT Government with the help of the Government of India. This has strengthened the overall healthcare delivery system. We have become more resilient to handle such situations in a better way.
What improvements have been made in the family welfare department during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Covid-19 has helped us to harness the skills and motivation of our staff. For the last nine months our people have been working tirelessly even on holidays. Though everybody needs a break, we are overwhelmed with the kind of effort of workers from the Health department and Family Welfare Department.
What has been the role of district hospitals in the fight against the virus?
District hospitals played a pivotal role in combating this menace. Their role is of immense value and by providing indoor facilities with oxygen-supported beds with intensive care units (ICUs), the burden on tertiary care hospitals has reduced. We are very thankful to Director SKIMS, Principal Medical College Jammu/Kashmir and Director Health Services Jammu/Kashmir for their continuous support.
Is there any mechanism in place to motivate people who still refuse vaccination?
Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities about Covid vaccination, involving religious leaders, local influencers through print and electronic media, increasing awareness through social media including Twitter about the achievements of the ongoing vaccination program has been helpful.
We have also availed services of local doctors to disseminate the message. The department has moved out of the comfort zone, adjusted according to the local needs, timing of beneficiaries. We have also used an alternative vaccine delivery strategy to reach out to people in far-flung areas. We also did vaccination keeping in mind the harvesting season and during nights. Door-to-door vaccination helped us to motivate people to get vaccinated.
How are you gearing up for the possible third wave?
Resilient infrastructure, trained workers and daily monitoring as per the World Health Organization (WHO) protocol is helping us in predicting third wave. All the logistics are being kept in place. The strategy of testing and contact tracing is being followed up vigorously which enables us to have a close watch on the progress of the disease.
What is your message for the health workers?
We appreciate the role and commitment of health workers. They have been working with dedication since the pandemic started. We are proud of their contribution in COVID management. The credit of the good work goes to all the employees of the department who never say no. It was always a team job.
What is your message for the general public?
My message for the general public is that they should get vaccinated as soon as possible and follow COVID-appropriate behaviors. Those people who have got fully vaccinated have no reported deaths.
When will you fully vaccinate people in the 18-44 age group?
The vaccination drives are underway in hospitals, public places, religious places, schools, colleges and government offices. The 18-44 age group would be fully vaccinated by the end of this year.
I must admit that achieving the highest percentage of vaccination and making vaccines available to J&K, in huge numbers, was possible because of continuous monitoring and intervention by the Lieutenant Governor and the administration of J&K.