From pandemic to Cyclone Nisarga - Raigad district collector Nidhi Chaudhari tells FPJ how they tackled the crisis

After handling nature fury Cyclone Nisarga in the midst of the COVID 19, the Raigad district administration is now going to witness a huge influx of natives for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. In an exclusive interview with Amit Srivastava for The Free Press Journal, Nidhi Chaudhari, the district collector of Raigad explains the challenges before the administration.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. What is your assessment of the COVID-19 situation in Raigad district?

Raigad shares its borders with Mumbai, Thane, and Pune which have been affected by COVID-19 spread. There is also a huge floating population in the district which regularly travels to and fro from MMR districts. Therefore, the district remains vulnerable to the spread of COVID and we have been making considerate efforts to keep it in check especially after the opening up of public transport in MMR recently.

Cases have risen in the past few weeks even in non-MMR areas. These are mostly concentrated amongst industrial employees. It is also proportional to the rise in testing facilities in the district. Today, we are testing more than 1,500 people every day.

We have started antigen testing on a large scale. Likewise, private establishments and industries are encouraged to go for testing of their employees which resulted in a sudden spike of COVID cases. Having said so, let me emphasize that being a neighboring district of Mumbai, Thane and Pune; we were expecting a rise after opening up of activities and we have accordingly geared up the health infrastructure. In fact, the daily number of COVID positive cases have remained stagnant around 300-400 in July despite ramping up testing. It is also good that the city of Panvel & Uran which had witnessed more cases of COVID are showing a flattening trend.

Q. How did the District administration handle both the NISARGA cyclone and COVID -19 together?

It was tough but we had to assemble all our courage and determination to save lives from the fury of Nature and the virus both. It required tremendous planning before the Nisarga hit our shores to evacuate a maximum number of people from kutcha houses, slums and to ensure that means of communication vide road and telecom remain undisturbed post-cyclone.

At the same time, it was pertinent to focus on the uninterrupted power supply in COVID facilities. We had arranged generators for all COVID hospitals, care centres, Tahsil offices, and also for water supply schemes so that COVID treatments do not hamper in the post-cyclone scenario.

Q. How many villages affected in the cyclone, and what were immediate steps taken by the administration to restore the situation?

Nisarga affected most of our villages. Electricity was disconnected in 1976 villages and over 2 lakh houses got partial damages. Over 2000 houses were fully damaged. Due to timely evacuation, we could ensure the loss of lives to a minimum.

As a preparatory measure, we had focused on establishing communication with all tahsils and for this, we had established wireless, Ham Radio, and Satellite phones in all tahsil control rooms. We had deployed NDRF, Coast Guard, and Civil Defense teams very strategically. Likewise, JCBs and woodcutters were made available at conspicuous locations for ensuring quick clearance of National Highway and major roads connecting with all Tahsils. We had also planned for the restoration of electricity in district headquarter at the earliest so that relief and rehabilitation work doesn’t hamper.

Clear instructions were issued to all important agencies like Police, Tahsildars, Municipal/Rural bodies, NHAI, PWD, Water Supply Department, Health Department, Coast Guard, Civil Defense, etc. Control Rooms of all line agencies were sensitized about the pre and post-cyclone responses. The District Command and Control Centre was set up in Collector Office wherein responsible officers from all line departments were deployed for effective coordination.

Q. Did COVID-19 pose difficulty in relief works, and what is the present status of relief works?

The difficulty was immense especially when we were visiting villages and convincing people for evacuation, it required a personal touch and it wasn’t possible with masks and physical distancing norms. We as administrators decided to risk ourselves for convincing people for evacuation from their existing unsafe houses.

Large preparatory meetings could not take place due to COVID restrictions so we focused on arranging multiple Video Conferences with core line departments. It was a tight rope walk to manage COVID contagion in a Cyclone affected area. We aimed to save lives from both COVID and Cyclonic devastation.

Q. Thousands of remote villages affected in the cyclone. Electricity supply could not be restored in several areas even today. How is it difficult for the administration to prevent the spread of COVID 19 in such a challenging situation?

Restoring Electricity was the toughest task especially due to the onset of Monsoon. I must admit that we couldn't imagine such devastation of electricity infrastructure. Today, we have reconnected all our affected villages but it took more than 50 days for some villages for getting the electricity. The role played by Hon. Energy Minister Dr.Nitin Raut and his entire department were critical in restoring electricity. Teams were called from other districts. Even Tata Power & Adani Power sent their teams to help MSEDL in the restoration work. Citizen rose to the occasion and helped teams of MSEDCL in re-erecting the fallen poles, straightening the wires, laying the foundation, and most importantly encouraging the teams on the ground. It is true that COVID made things tough. There were situations when one of the members of the electricity team would get COVID and the entire team had to be quarantined. Sometimes, villagers would oppose the labourers of electrical contractors due to fear of COVID. The teams which came from the non-Konkan area faced difficulties due to heavy monsoon. 

Q. What is your immediate plan of action as the active cases are over 3000?

Our aim has always been "test, trace and treat". We have created ample CCC facilities and if timely testing is done, most people will recover from COVID. We have also encouraged many private hospitals to start COVID services. Likewise, we directed industries to set up their own CCCs and DCHC which provided additional support to existing facilities.

Q. There are claims that the Rapid Antigen tests are not as accurate as RT-PCR tests. Do you think that too much dependence on the Antigen test may aggravate the situation?

Antigen test algorithm shared by the ICMR mentions that a positive Antigen result is a confirmed positive while a negative result for asymptomatic people can be treated as a negative result. However, if the person is symptomatic and antigen result comes negative, then the RT-PCR test is recommended.

Having said this, we are setting up District COVID lab at District Civil Hospital and this would enhance RT-PCR testing. We have also allowed private labs to set up booths for RT-PCR testing in our most populous cities. Antigen testing is primarily done among frontline COVID workers and containment zones where the likelihood of positive results is more and it helps in timely tracking the infected people.

Q. Does the district administration have enough ventilators available?

There are 69 ventilators available and 882 O2 supported beds are available. 216 ICU beds are available. As most COVID patients are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, the ratio of patients who need O2 support has been considered and accordingly O2 beds have been increased. Ventilator availability is sufficient. We have also procured HFNO devices and also got some in CSR. The government of India has also provided Ventilators to all the districts including Raigad. We are likely to get some more soon.

Q. How will the administration tackle the shortage of doctors and paramedical personnel?

We have encouraged many private hospitals to come forward. There are more than 10 private hospitals that are catering to COVID treatment in Panvel city. For the rest of Raigad, industrial associations have set up their COVID facilities and are having agreements with private hospitals in Mumbai or Pune for their workforce. This reduces the need for bed availability accordingly. Besides, as I said earlier around 75% of patients are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic in COVID and they are managed through Home Isolation or CCC facility.

Having said so, there is no denial that there is a shortage of doctors and paramedical personnel. We have brought IMA on board in some tahsils where private doctors have voluntarily agreed to provide consultation and 

Q. What preparations has the administration made for Ganesh Chaturthi?

We have appealed to all citizens to celebrate the festival at their current place of residence and avoid traveling as far as possible. We have also advised that all those who have to come shall visit Raigad before 12th August so that 10 days of home isolation can be followed before the festival starts.

All those who had recovered from COVID or have positive anti-body test results can visit after 12th August. Others are appealed to get themselves tested for COVID if they are visiting after 12th August. We have also appealed to citizens to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi and do visarjan in their homes only. The COVID Control Committee of the village is responsible for monitoring the visits and home isolation of incoming citizens. They are also responsible for ensuring that no mass visarjan is allowed in the village limits.

Regarding the law & order, Police and Highway authorities have been directed to maintain peace and uninterrupted traffic movement on major Highways.

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