New headache for Pinarayi government as COVID-19 spread rampant among migrant workers in Kerala
With a large number of migrant workers getting infected in Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kottayam, experts call into question effectiveness of mass antigen testing as a containment strategy
KOCHI: For an economy that relies heavily on migrant workers, the state’s best efforts to protect them from the Covid pandemic seem to have been in vain. The number of migrant workers infected with SARS-CoV-2 has gone through the roof, raising widespread concerns in the state.
The measures rolled out, including mass antigen testing and quarantine, have fallen flat and some experts now opine that mass antigen testing is detrimental to containment strategy itself since results are not reliable.
Covid-positive cases among the migrant community have been reported from several districts including Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kottayam. A whopping 170 cases were reported in the past two weeks in Ernakulam alone.
The migrant workers have arrived from many states, with Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Bihar contributing the largest numbers. As many as 37 migrant workers employed at a private hospital in Kochi city and 70 employed at a private warehouse in Payipra near Muvattupuzha tested positive for the virus.
In Thrissur district, 30 migrant labourers working in a private establishment had tested positive for the virus in June. The vegetable market at Ettumanoor in Kottayam was shut down last month after 47 people tested positive for Covid, of whom 32 were migrant workers. In Kozhikode, over 30 migrant labourers working in various private establishments had tested positive in July.
All migrant workers joining work at establishments in the state are subjected to antigen testing and a mandatory seven- to 14-day quarantine. The widespread infection among them, therefore, raises doubts about the veracity of the tests conducted.
“We do not know for sure how the infection spread at the hospital in Kochi. Thirty-seven migrant labourers working at the hospital -- in canteens and in maintenance activities including plumbing and building repairs -- tested positive. Later, health staff at the hospital, who had come in contact with these persons, also tested positive. While we have traced the sequence of infection spread, finding the sources of infection of all of them is near impossible,” said a source at the private hospital.
Ironically, the infected labourers in Ernakulam, who arrived from different states, had all tested negative during the antigen tests conducted on arrival, he said.
Earlier, in June this year, the ICMR had recommended that RT-PCR tests should be conducted only on those with clear symptoms of the disease and who have tested negative in the rapid antigen test.
“Any migrant labourer arriving in the state is supposed to undergo quarantine and antigen test. They cannot be permitted to work unless their test results are negative. The majority of firms would prefer antigen testing, as it involves mass testing and many of the workers are asymptomatic,” said a health official.
“The most reliable testing in the case of migrant workers, who stay together under one roof, is the pooled RT-PCR test, which is conducted by collecting samples of five or six persons in the group rather than affecting the entire staff of the organisation. To an extent, this is practical, but relying completely on the antigen test may be inimical to the district’s containment strategy,” said Monu Varghese, a pulmonologist based in Kochi.
Meanwhile Sreelal K, additional labour commissioner (Enforcement), said strict norms have been formulated for migrant workers. Each district labour officer has been given the responsibility to ensure that they follow these norms. “No unusual spread of Covid cases among the migrant workers has come to our notice. Strict actions are being taken against migrant workers who violate quarantine norms in the state,” he said.