KASARAGOD: On April 1, a Wednesday, in his daily evening press conference in Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that a COVID Care Centre would come up at the work-in-progress Medical College Hospital in Kasaragod in four days. A day before, he had warned people against sending fake messages on COVID-19 on April Fools’ Day. So officials back in Kasaragod, 555 km away, knew the chief minister was not joking.
If Kasaragod was not remote enough, the medical college itself was coming up in -- to borrow the words of Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan -- ‘a godforsaken land’ at Ukkinadka on the border of Badiadka and Enmakaje grama panchayats. But the man tasked with doing the impossible -- the imperturbable Dr Raman Swathy Vaman, district programme manager of National Health Mission -- understood the government’s urgency.
In the run-up to the chief minister’s announcement, Kasaragod reported 106 COVID cases in 10 days. On April 1, another 12 persons tested positive. “We were asked to prepare for a major outbreak. We decided to give it a shot,” said Dr Vaman. And what a shot it was! At 11.58 pm on Sunday -- two minutes before the chief minister’s deadline, Health Minister K K Shailaja tweeted with four photographs: ‘The COVID Care Centre set up at Kasaragod Medical College will be functional from tomorrow’.
“In the four days, around 75 people worked day and night to modify the three floors of the administrative-cum-academic block into a hospital,” said Dr Vaman. The entire machinery of the government -- Kerala Medical Services Corporation Ltd (KMSCL), the procuring agency, the district administration, the District Health Service, KSEB, Kerala Water Authority -- was streamlined to achieve the target. KSEB committed Rs 10 crore for the medical college. In six hours after the chief minister’s announcement, Dr Vaman and his team drew up a list of equipment worth Rs 10 crore for the hospital and KSEB approved the purchase order.
The KMSCL placed orders for medical equipment and furniture worth Rs 5 crore. The KMSCL’s list was classified into two parts: Equipment, medicines and furniture that will arrive in four days, and those that will not.
KMSCL sent 100 beds and mattresses the next day. A local mattress maker worked round the clock to deliver another 100 mattresses and pillows. Plumbers worked overtime to convert the labs into ICU units. Care was taken not to damage the structure of the academic block once the hospital building is completed. The lockdown delayed the arrival of equipment. “Yet, equipment and furniture worth Rs 2 crore arrived and we locally procured medicines, furniture, tube lights, fans and medical equipment worth Rs 50 lakh in four days,” said Dr Vaman.
Around 10 volunteers of DYFI cleaned the three floors. A team of nurses -- experts in infection control -- was brought in from the District Hospital to set up the COVID Care Centre to decide on the entry of patients, staff, caregivers, their separate exits and the placing of beds in the wards. By Sunday night, COVID Care Centre was ready. A team of nurses and cleaning staff was sourced from different government hospitals to run the centre. The Directorate of Medical Education pitched in by sending a team of 26 doctors and nurses from the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital. It was a race against time and Kasaragod beat the time. But a piece of better news started trickling in. After the COVID Centre was ready on April 7, the district reported only 16 positive cases. The recovery rate has touched 70 per cent in the district, better than the state average. “But we cannot be too prepared during a pandemic. We are ready,” said Dr Vaman.