CHENNAI: There has been a major outbreak of coronavirus inside India's premier educational institution - IIT Madras - and the campus is placed under temporary lockdown. According to health authorities, 71 Covid cases were reported in the last two weeks, of which 66 are students, four mess staff and one from resident quarters. The single-day highest spike was on Sunday with 32 fresh cases and the number is likely to go up in the next couple of days with Tamil Nadu government instructing the institute to test all the students on the campus.
The IIT Madras has issued an official circular on Sunday informing shutting down of all departments and facilities with immediate effect.
The circular, a copy of which is accessed by The New Indian Express, says "In view of the recent spike in Covid cases in the hostel sector, it has been decided to shut down all departments, Centres and the library immediately until further notice. All faculty, staff, project staff and research scholars will work from home until such time. All students, scholars and project staff staying on campus are advised strictly to confine themselves to their hostel rooms and maintain social distance at all times for their own safety," it reads.
The advisories issued earlier by administration, Tamil Nadu government and Government of India are to be fully complied with. "In case of any symptoms of Covid (fever, dry cough, sore throat, diarrhoea, loss of taste/smell, or any other symptoms) you are required to contact the IIT Madras hospital authorities immediately," the circular says.
When contacted, Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan told Express that health authorities are working closing with IIT Madras to contain the spread. "These kinds of localised clusters are expected. We suspect common mess, where students get together, to be the cause and advised the administration to close the mess and deliver the food directly to the residents. We have asked the institute to conduct tests on everyone and Chennai Corporation will be assisting them in disinfecting the hotspots."
As per the official data, there are nine student hostels and one guest house from which Covid cases were reported. A total of 774 students are currently residing on the campus, of which samples were collected from 408 students as on date. Krishna hostel reported the maximum Covid cases of 22 followed by 20 cases from Jamuna.
"Cause of the spurt whether due to mess or imported cases is being identified. Mask, handwashing, social distancing and other standard procedures are being monitored. IIT Madras management has been extending all cooperation and following the standard operating procedure. All districts have been sensitised to keep a watch on public places especially educational institutions and hostels and also fever surveillance has been intensified," Radhakrishnan said.
Some of the students and research scholars, who spoke to this reporter, also alleged that IIT Madras administration's decision to run a single mess for a very long time and force hundreds of resident students to vacate hostels and turn into day scholars has led to this crisis.
"Currently, day scholars have outnumbered hotel students. We will not know who has spread the infection since so many people are allowed to move in and out daily," said a post doctoral fellow.
Constantly in touch with civic authorities: IIT Madras
In response to Express queries, IIT Madras said that the institute has been functioning on limited capacity with only 10 percent students in the hostels. Detailing on the issue, the IIT Madras said in the
statement that as soon as a spurt in symptomatic cases was reported by some students residing in the hostels, the institute has consulted the civic authorities and has arranged for all students residing in
hostels to be tested for Covid. To be cautious, all students have been asked to remain in their rooms and packed food is being supplied to the students in the hostels.
IIT Madras has been permitting research scholars who need to do experimental work to return to campus in a cautious manner - with a 14-day quarantine and testing of each returnee. "Our capacity to quarantine (with room service) is limited, and this limits the rate at which we can bring back scholars to the hostels," IIT Madras said.
Some Project Staff working on research projects and staying in the city have been coming to work in the labs, since this was permitted by the government, the statement said. A SoP is in place to determine how many scholars and project staff can work safely in each lab based on its size, ventilation etc. Research scholars who wished to return earlier (out of turn with respect to the SoP involving quarantine
before release into the hostels) were permitted to do so if they were willing to stay off campus similar to project staff, till their turn came to be accepted in the hostels, and provided their lab could accommodate them, the statement said.
"We will attempt to increase our capacity to quarantine returning students since the government is releasing the hostels they took custody of to quarantine Covid patients during the last 7 months. IIT Madras has been constantly in touch with the civic authorities and has been following all protocols and safety measures," the statement reads.