ISLAMABAD: The ordeal of six women pilgrims who were declared positive without undergoing any clinical tests for COVID-19 puts a question mark over the screening measures adopted by the health authorities to check the spread of the disease.
Authorities looking after pilgrims at a designated quarantine center in DG Khan declared these six women positive without any clinical tests on March 21 on arrival from Iran’s Qom province.
Talking to Geo News, these women claimed nobody took their samples in Taftan or DG Khan and wondered how they were tested positive despite the fact that they had not visited any hospital.
These women were in good health but the authorities first kept them at the Taftan quarantine center for 16 days and then at the DG Khan quarantine center for one week. They were reported positive last week without any test. They reached Taftan on March 1 and were among 7,000 pilgrims who travelled from Qom and Tehran to Taftan after local authorities asked them on Feb 29 to leave for home as quickly as possible.
They were kept in a camp set up at the Taftan border. These women never felt groggy and were among around 1,200 patients and 182 confirmed patients in DG Khan.
"We are all fine. No one conducted tests on us, never took any samples even. We developed no symptoms in Qom or here and feel fresh. Our real misery started at the Taftan quarantine center … it continues even here. Now we have been told that we have tested positive," one of the women told Geo News.
All the six women spoke to Geo on phone telling that no doctor approached them to take samples.
Health officials and district administration were either silent or confused on the issue. They told Geo News that data was being collected and complained that there was shortage of equipment to test more than 2,400 suspects at the Multan and DG Khan quarantine centers.
Geo News spoke to four top officials in Layyah, DG Khan and Multan, who were looking after pilgrims' issues, to know facts.
It was learnt that there was serious confusion over the test results, suspects’ data and details of pilgrims.
However, the story of these women has alerted the physicians and paramedics, who fear that around 10,000 pilgrims not undergoing a proper screening at the airports and borders might acquire COVID-like symptoms in days to come.
Over 400 pilgrims developed symptoms on March 4 at the Taftan quarantine camp housing around 3,000 pilgrims, health officials said.
Geo News interviewed four corona patients and three doctors treating the patients, who said respiratory tract infections were common among hundreds of pilgrims quarantined in Sukkur, Taftan, DG Khan or Multan.
Taftan received over 7,000 pilgrims by March 6. Commissioner Ayaz Mandokhail warned the provincial government of nurturing a coronavirus at Taftan.
“No standard procedures have been given or followed. We congregated hundreds of suspected people in Pakistan House and other tent camps. It is virtually detention, not quarantining,” he wrote to Add Chief Secretary Balochistan on March 7.
Liaquat Shahwani, spokesperson for the Balochistan government, said it was difficult for them to handle a huge flow of pilgrims and put them in separate rooms.
“Whether one calls it a coronavirus nursery or something else, we have put in maximum efforts to quarantine all the pilgrims,” Shahwani told Geo News.
The family of a pilgrim, Saadat Khan, 51, who returned to Pakistan on March 9 from Jeddah, told the similar story. Before he died of COVID-19 on March 18, he met some 2,000 people in his village in Mardan, many of whom embraced him.
Similarly, over 30,000 pilgrims have returned from Saudi Arabia in the past two months, said officials. Around two dozen suspected cases in pilgrims were even detected in Jeddah, they said.
The pilgrims could not be properly quarantined due to lack of health facilities at the airports. We can’t determine if a pilgrim has contracted virus due to unavailability of screening equipment at the border and test kits, added the health officials.
Doctors said the pathogens frequently acquired by pilgrims were being investigated adding that rhinovirus, human coronaviruses or influenza viruses were found in dozen of suspects.
Over 400 out of a total of 1,200 suspects being kept at the DG Khan and Multan quarantine camps had fever, cough and myalgia and the test results are awaited.
Dozens of other pilgrims and locals are also visiting the designated hospitals and the National Institute of Health, doctors say.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to Tehran Rahim Hayat Qureshi said his mission quickly facilitated all the pilgrims in getting back home, as there was already a crisis situation in Iran. Neither any influence was used nor did anyone interfere in the border management matters, Qureshi told Geo News.
Khalid Majid, Pakistan’s Consul General in Jeddah, confirmed dispatch of over 30,000 pilgrims to Pakistan in the past 10 weeks.
He said it was indeed a crisis situation to make arrangements for the pilgrims out of whom a few suspects might have developed symptoms in Jeddah.
This correspondent also approached Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services Dr Zafar Mirza for his viewpoint on this important matter.
Till the filing of this story in the evening, Dr Mirza didn’t respond on the claim of these six women who were declared positive by doctors with any tests.
Advisor to the Punjab Chief Minister on Health Hanif Khan Pitafi said the samples of all 176 confirmed cases were taken by paramedics in DG Khan and it was impossible that these women were tested positive without taking any samples.
“They might not have any symptoms but I assure you that they are being taken care of and all suspects being put in quarantine center for best care. Yes, statistics are being collected and exact data would be provided once it’s verified dually,” he told Geo News. However, the women and their family members claimed that they developed no symptoms and no one had taken their samples in Taftan and DG Khan till March 23.
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