Gangtok: Are the Sikkimese people or local residents of Sikkim immune to COVID-19? At least the state government seems to think so, as there is apparently no standard operating procedure (SOP) in place for conducting Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) on locals at the borders in Rangpo and Melli as well as at Pakyong Airport.
Since April 17, RAT was initiated from 10 am to 5 pm at Rangpo and Melli border check-posts in Sikkim. Up to 1,691 tourists have entered the state during that period from Rangpo alone.
Twenty-seven international tourists have entered Sikkim since April 17, with seven Burmese nationals being denied entry on April 18. Up to 101 tests through RAT have been conducted at Rangpo so far, with only three of them testing positive for COVID-19.
In Melli, 102 tests have been conducted with two testing positive on April 19 with nine primary contacts. So, the screening has been applied only for the tourists. For the locals, RAT is voluntary.
There have been 454 tests across the state from April 17 so far, with 77 of them testing COVID-19 positive. There have been 255 COVID-19 cases in the state during this time through tests conducted by both RT-PCR and RAT. Currently, there are 536 active cases in the state.
Also, RAT is being conducted at the borders by the government in the specified timings. But what happens before 10 am and what after 5 pm?
What’s worse, Pakyong Airport had 487 passengers entering Sikkim since April 17. However, the government has not notified for RAT to be conducted at the airport.
The ruling from the government asserts on tourists to come with RT-PCR negative report within 72 hours of testing. Health department initiated RAT at the airport from April 20 for those without RT PCR negative report.
“When the health department tested the passengers without RT-PCR reports, both locals and non-locals, two locals tested positive on the first day. Forty-three people were found without RT PCR testing out of 70 passengers entering Sikkim. So, RAT was conducted on them. Yet there is no notification in place for locals. Anyone working in Sikkim with a voter ID card qualifies as a local,” said a health official requesting anonymity.
“There were four tourists who were identified as foreign nationals, but they were without certificate. They, however, tested negative”, the official added.
East Sikkim chief medical officer Dr Tempo Bhutia highlighted on how it has been a voluntary procedure for testing, not specifying to locals. “There have been rapid antigen tests for the tourists, though. Following this, they go for isolation or home quarantine for seven days. Locals who travel from Delhi and Kolkata are being advised to quarantine themselves. There is no SOP in place for testing them at the borders.”
“The only advisory is that if tourists come with an expired report RT-PCR test, they will be tested through RAT so that they don’t face problems at the hotels. There was no SOP in place for any form of testing at the airport but it was done by health department only on April 20. There is no procedure in place for tourism and civil aviation department or the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to conduct any form of screening. The health department can at best counsel the COVID-positive passengers to opt for home isolation,” Bhutia added.
Meanwhile, an official at the Pakyong Airport, requesting anonymity, said that RAT was initiated from April 20, as it was posing a threat to the staffers. “We learnt that one local passenger, who came from Bangalore, had complained that there was no one to test at Pakyong Airport. Hence, the AAI officials in Pakyong approached the tourism department. Following this, the East Sikkim CMO came on Friday and started testing from Tuesday,” he said.
According to the official, AAI provided the infrastructure and its staffers are aiding them in screening. “But with no clear notification in place, it is unsure who conducts the test — tourism or health department? If a person tests positive at the airport, who takes the person to isolation? There were no tests conducted on the locals,” he said.
Amid all this, two locals tested positive on Wednesday, the official said. “Six non-locals were tested on RAT from among 84 passengers that landed in Pakyong on April 21. However, there were no positive cases,” he said.
Another official at the airport said, “On April 21, we received a chartered flight which had three passengers who were also tested. Passengers are ideally urged to bring RT-PCR reports so that they do not face any kind of harassment. However, tests need to be conducted on locals as well. Why differentiate on testing between locals and non-locals? There are so many locals returning to the state.”
When contacted, tourism director Kapil Meena told EastMojo that two local passengers returning on a flight from Delhi tested COVID-19 positive through RAT on April 20. “One was from Shyari and the other was from Pakyong. They were taken by the health department’s ambulance and dropped at their residences for 17 days of home quarantine. If RT-PCR report is valid, then there is no need for testing. The other primary contacts in the same flight also need testing and they have been advised for the same, if they develop symptoms,” he said.
In other states, before boarding the flight, passengers are being tested, Meena said. “Similarly, at Pakyong Airport, there were plans of bringing testing kits and professionals from Apollo Hospital. However, nothing has materialised so far. So, the health department was approached. Initially, they were hesitant, but testing has started now. Since there is a pre-boarding screening with SpiceJet, someone without RT-PCR report is not being allowed to board the flight,” he added.
However, surprisingly, those exiting from Pakyong Airport to Delhi or Kolkata are not being identified for RT-PCR negative report at all. There is no rule in place for that. “Once they land in Pakyong Airport, they are subjected to RAT. But locals have not been included in the protocol so far. Previous notification was confined only for tourists. People coming from Darjeeling and Kalimpong are not being tested either,” said Meena.
“If the tourists are coming in a service taxi, which is not reserved, they have a combination of passengers, both locals and non-locals. So, they are bound to get transmission if there is a carrier or a positive person with them, who may or may not be a tourist. There is no full-proof system. Even the students are coming back home. There is no demarcation like a red zone or a green zone this time. It cannot be just the tourism department’s directive on screening since the numbers are increasing,” Meena added.