Covid -19 had put a lot of pressure on health systems throughout the country including Jammu and Kashmir. Since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, access to oxygen has been a growing challenge. The overall management of health services during the pandemic was a tough task, but the situation was managed properly.
Director, Health Services Kashmir, Dr Mushtaq Ahmad Rather in an exclusive interview with the Rising Kashmir’s Health Correspondent Rabiya Bashir talks about the challenges, strategies and future plans to combat the new threat of covid-19 in the valley.
How challenging has been 2021 for you?
I joined the department when the Covid was at its peak. But I have worked in those hospitals before joining as Director, Health Services Kashmir, where we have to work round the clock and handle the emergency services. That helped me a lot in managing and handling the Covid situation. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, access to oxygen has been a growing challenge. But we still managed the situation in 2021 very nicely.
How well-equipped is our health system now? What have we learned from covid-19 pandemic?
Covid -19 had put a lot of pressure on health systems throughout the country including J&K. Since this was the first time, we had to experience such a situation for which we were not ready, but we still handled the situation very well. Oxygen is an essential element for Covid-19 patients. Timely availability of oxygen decides the life and death of Covid-19 patients. So, we have increased the oxygen availability in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In May, 2021, we had only 8820 isolation beds and in December, 2021 the capacity was increased to 19783 isolation beds. In May 2021, the number of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds were 352 and in December, 2021 the number had increased to 717.There were 757 ventilators in May 2021, and in December, 2021 there were 1,320 ventilators. Before seven months, the number of oxygen supported beds were 3,987 and in December, 2021, the number had increased to 5,468.
Are we prepared for the new strain?
Yes, we are prepared for anything to come. We have an adequate availability of medicines, our manpower is good enough, our ICUs in all the districts are well established especially for the Covid-19 patients. We have installed oxygen plants. During the Second wave of Covid-19, we had an oxygen plant with only 900 liters per minute (LPM) of capacity. Now we have 30,000 LPM capacity of oxygen plants. Oxygen is the lifeline of these patients. Our government is ready. In fact, we have buffer stocks of medicines, testing kits, and other drugs in huge quantities.
How would you handle the situation if Omicron cases surge?
I hope that this Omicron variant will not spread. We are ready to overcome any difficulty. We have already put the facilities in place in different hospitals. Not only at district levels, we have set up isolation centres and increased bed capacity at the block level too. We have set up centres where enough beds are available at panchayat level. The government is supporting us.
Do you think the Omicron variant will bring a third wave in the country?
No, the omicron variant can spread faster but it has a less mortality rate. We are keeping our fingers crossed, the more the omicron will be infectious, the more it will spread in the population. So, we have to take precautions. Again, the golden rules apply here, social distancing, masks and hand hygiene are must. Our population is vaccinated and it will definitely help us to fight the virus.
Are the existing vaccines effective against new variants?
Ofcourse, the existing vaccines are still effective. This omicron variant spreads faster than other variants. If the Delta variant used to infect 10 people, this omicron variant will infect 110 such is the tendency of this variant. So, masks, social distancing and hand hygiene are very important. And those people who are not vaccinated yet, should go for the vaccination and other booster dose. It really helps fight against coronavirus.
What about the booster doses?
The booster doses are for the elderly and those who have comorbidities including health care and frontline workers. Our health care workers are prepared for the vaccination process of teenagers starting from January 3. And for elderly we will start from January 10. Teenagers between the age of 15 and 18 years, who will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination from next month, can register online on CoWin for the same. Teens who will become eligible for vaccination will only be administered doses of the Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine. From 10 January precautionary dose or booster dose will be rolled out for Health care workers (HCWs), Frontline workers (FLWs) and people of 60 age group with co-morbidities.
How well-equipped is the rural health sector of Kashmir?
Our rural health sector is fully prepared, well equipped. In fact, there were negligible referrals from district hospitals to the Srinagar district. We used to have hundreds of patients admitted in different districts like Pulwama, Kupwara and others. The patients who were critical were the only referrals from different district hospitals. We have managed everything very well in the past as well as in the future we will do the best.
How many covid-19 tests have been carried by the department in 2021?
The department is continuously conducting the RAT as well RT-PCR testing in the valley, to stop the spread of coronavirus. We have deputed our health officials everywhere, who are doing their work with full dedication and commitment. We have conducted more than 90 lakh Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tests for covid-19 in Kashmir only and that is a big achievement in itself.
Covid affected the other health services in the valley. Your comments?
We had kept separate OPD, IPD and beds in different district hospitals for Covid-19 patients and non-Covid patients. Health services were not much affected. We managed it very nicely. Less patients were visiting the hospital during the Covid-19 breakout.
Many areas remain cut-off during winters. How do they handle Covid and other patients?
Yes, we have conducted several meetings regarding it. We have provided all the facilities in those areas. We have ensured that all the required medicines will be available there.
Besides treating covid-19 patients, how many OPD services and surgeries have been done by the health department?
Amid pandemic we have provided more than 72 lakh OPD services in the ten districts of the valley. Besides, 18,557 major surgeries and 1,58,249 minor surgeries have been performed in the hospitals. Also, 27,374 total deliveries were also performed across Kashmir. 30 lakh Lab tests, 1,60,946 USGs, 3,38,563 X-rays and 1,68,164 ECGs were done in 10 districts hospitals including Srinagar.
What was the response from the Lieutenant Governor led administration during Covid?
With the support of the administration, we managed everything. Our mortality and morbidity rates were very low. Our overall testing, vaccination process went smoothly. From Safai wala to Lieutenant Governor, everybody was on their toes. With the support of the Lieutenant Governor led administration, we achieved our target.
What is your message to people?
I am requesting people to follow the Covid appropriate behaviour. People are attending social, religious gatherings without wearing masks. Following Covid appropriate behaviour is must to fight this pandemic. Our healthcare workers are working hard to help people in fighting this deadly virus, but cooperation from the public is must to get rid of this COVID-19.