Gangtok: After staying for 11 days at the Saramsa Garden COVID care centre, 64 COVID-positive monks have now returned to Gonjang Monastery near Gangtok in Sikkim for isolation.

They will now remain in isolation for the rest of week at the monastery with medical aid from ASHA workers and health officials.

The monastery was one of the first to report several cases of COVID-19 among monks on May 22. Soon, monks staying at other monasteries also started getting infected with the virus. Over 300 monks have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state so far.

EastMojo caught up with the faculty members of Sikkim Institute of Higher Nyingma Studies (SHEDA) along with ASHA workers who are looking after the infected monks at the monastery.

Expressing happiness over the return of the monks, SHEDA faculty member Tenpai Nima said: “They all look healthy. The monks who are recovering have been kept seperately in a different floor with a senior monk to supervise the younger monks in every room. Almost 50 of them are teenagers or children.”

There are 85 people housed at the monastery and SHEDA.

Nima and his colleagues were in the staff quarters, isolated from the monks. But among the student monks, many appeared to have come in contact with a Tibetan herbal pharmacist, he said.

“Our compounder at the Tibetan medicine centre in the monastery premises seems to have been the source. Since he was vaccinated with the first dose, the symptoms were initially believed to be the after-effects of the vaccine,” Nima said.

The compounder used to come from Nam Nang near MG Marg, he said. “Soon, many students appeared to have developed symptoms. Many students came in contact with him when they were administered medicines. However, they were hiding their fever and cough,” he added.

It was only when a 42- year-old faculty member got serious on May 19, that they realised the gravity of the situation. “We came to know that it was COVID-19. He later died of COVID pneumonitis. He may have been scared, that is why he hid his symptoms and the situation worsened,” he added.

Acknowledging that the institution was the first to report COVID-19 cases among monks, Gonjang Monastery now wants to collectively pursue vaccination with other monasteries.
“We are considering of coming together with other monasteries to take an initiative for vaccination. Such a drive has not happened,” Nima said.

Efforts would be taken to carry out the vaccination drive with support from Sangha legislator Sonam Lama and the ecclesiastical department of the state.

Also read: Sikkim: Amid criticism, Central Referral Hospital reduces COVID testing rates

ASHA worker Tshering Chemmu, who was one of the first responders to the spread of COVID-19 in the monastery, revealed how they were warned by the death of a monk due to the virus.

“We got a call after he died at STNM Hospital. On May 20, we traced his primary contacts and the following day we carried out sampling. On May 22, many tested positive for the virus, after which they were shifted to the COVID care centre,” Chemu said.

The ASHA worker highlighted on how the monastery maintains hygiene among the monks. “The Rinpoche has kept hygiene as part of the curriculum for student monks. If the deceased monk would not have hidden his symptoms, the virus would not have spread at the monastery,” she added.

Meanwhile, as per COVID protocols, the infeted monks will have to be under isolation for a week under medical surveillance of the Samdong primary health centre.

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