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COVID-19: Centre's phone survey may lead to testing of those with symptoms, experts sceptical

In a document released late on Monday evening, the Centre had said that it will be conducting a telephonic survey through the National Informatics Centre and calls will be made by the number 1921.

Published: 22nd April 2020 07:42 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd April 2020 08:26 PM   |  A+A-

A doctor takes a swab sample of a journalist at a COVID-19 coronavirus testing camp for journalists in New Delhi on Wednesday.

A doctor takes a swab sample of a journalist at a COVID-19 coronavirus testing camp for journalists in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: A mammoth telephonic survey asking mobile users whether they have COVID-19 symptoms is set to be the basis for identifying individuals with influenza like illnesses and possibly testing them to confirm the infection or putting them under quarantine, The New Indian Express has learnt.

An estimated 90 per cent of households in India are believed to have mobile phones.

In a document released late on Monday evening, the Centre had said that it will be conducting a telephonic survey through the National Informatics Centre and calls will be made by the number 1921.

“People are informed that it is a genuine survey and are requested to participate in good measure when a call comes in from 1921 to enable proper feedback of the prevalence and distribution of COVID-19 symptoms,” the document said without explicitly mentioning the purpose of the survey.

Sources in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare however told The New Indian Express that the survey is part of a mega digital epidemiological survey suggested by the national task force on COVID-19 that will help the government categorise districts by burden of ILI, identify suspected cases, asking them to stay at home and follow them up medically.

When this correspondent asked Preeti Sudan, Union health secretary, whether those who report ILI through the survey will be tested further for coronavirus, she replied saying “that is logical.”

Other officials in the ministry meanwhile said that the idea is to preferably test all individuals with ILI but if that wont be possible logistically—given the testing constraints—they are likely to be treated as presumptive COVID-19 patients and isolated in order to break the chain of transmission.

“All these details are being worked out now but we want the states to publicize this telesurvey so that people are aware, expect the call and participate in it with details that are specifically asked,” an official said. “The idea is to call a large number of random mobile users with appropriate urban and rural stratification and assess the ground situation.”

The Indian Council of Medical Research has been saying that India’s testing capacity per day through RTPCR -- the most reliable diagnostic test for COVID-19 -- is nearly 40,000 per day but can be expanded to 70,000 per day. These kits are expected to last about two months under the present testing criteria.

As of now, only people with a history of international travel who have symptoms, their close contacts, healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients, hospitalised patients with severe respiratory illnesses and people with ILI in hotspots or evacuee centres are being offered RTPCR tests.

It's not clear if the capacity can be stretched to test all patients with ILI and the inaccuracy reported in rapid antibody testing kits that was to be used for surveillance in hotspots has made things more complicated.

Experts meanwhile cautioned against too much reliance on the telesurvey.

“There is a stigma attached to COVID-19 and there have been multiple reports of people hiding coughing and travel histories from medical professionals similar to how sexual behaviour used to be hidden during the peak of AIDS,” said public health specialist Oommen C Kurian. “So I do not know what percentage of people will self report even if they have symptoms.”

Dr Anant Bhan, researcher in bioethics and global health, too said that the government should adopt a more targeted approach on areas with high burden of cases instead of wasting resources on such a massive exercise that could have little utility.

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