NEW DELHI: A delay of several weeks in enforcing mandatory quarantine for all international travellers coming to the country at the first point of entry may have accelerated the coronavirus outbreak in India and is likely to cause a greater public health crisis.
An analysis of nearly 20 travel advisories issued by the Centre over the last two months shows that it was only on March 18 — just four days before the country suspended all commercial airline operations to India — that government decided that everyone coming from abroad will be essentially quarantined.
In a detailed advisory titled ‘Standard Operating Procedure for Passenger Movement post Disembarkation’, the government said that based on their assessment, travellers will be categorised as “high risk” and “low risk” and will be quarantined at home or dedicated facilities.
The advisory also said that any violation could invoke penal action but public health specialists are of the view that a delay of several weeks in isolating suspects is now making the contact tracing and putting thousands under surveillance a herculean task.
“At the assigned counter, the passports of the entire batch will be handed over by the Team Lead to the Medical Officer-in-charge of the counter. Here the passengers would be screened and those without any risk factors would be sent for home quarantine after providing them with their passports, the Home Quarantine Advisory and collecting a declaration from them, to remain strictly under Home Quarantine, or else face penal action, as per the rules,” the advisory said.
“The possibility of stamping the passengers, as done in Maharashtra, with home quarantine stamp would be explored. These passengers would be linked to the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme. Delhi Government would depute Delhi state IDSP team for this purpose,” the advisory said.
It added that the high-risk passengers identified for quarantine at the facilities would be first asked to fill up a declaration opting for paid hotel facility/ government quarantine facility (based on availability) and subsequently quarantined.
A Bengaluru-based public health expert, who did not wish to be named, pointed out that the provision of mandatory quarantine should have been enforced at least on March 6 if not earlier.
“It’s obvious now that till very late the government did not take the threat seriously enough even though the epidemic was big in China and many other countries,” said Amar Jesani, public health expert and editor of Indian Journal of Medical Ethics.
A senior official in the ministry of health and family welfare said that containment decision has been taken based on the evolving situation.
“We started thermal screening from select countries at select airports in January and have been constantly escalating efforts,” he said.
Blanket order to quarantine travellers came from ICMR A scientist with the Indian Council of Medical Research said it was on the advice of the council that a blanket order to quarantine all foreign travellers was taken last week while adding that it might have been too late in the day.
“The government will now need to monitor all who came to India after February 1 and their contacts but I don’t know how they will do that,” the scientist said. In a statement on Tuesday, the government said that cumulatively 1,87,904 persons are under surveillance India while around 35,073 have completed 28 days observation period.