Apparently everything, if you ask the Chairperson of the Campus Health and Medical Committee, Dr Prabhakar Bhimalapuram. 13 months on (and counting), he’s been the institute’s public face in the fight against Covid-19. And arranging for a barber so that no one leaves campus in the quest of a haircut is just one instance of the level of detail he has to delve into – for safety’s sake.
When the Campus Health and Medical Committee (CHMC) was set up years ago, it’s main area of concern was the efficient running of the Arogya Center or clinic on the IIITH campus. Besides two allopathic doctors who are in attendance in shifts throughout the day, it also boasts the presence of an Ayurvedic and Homeopathic doctor respectively. Bringing not just physical health of IIIT-ians under its purview, but also mental well being, it includes a student counsellor, a psychologist and a psychiatrist in the mix. “ We are responsible for all health-and medical related activities inside the campus,” remarks Dr Prabhakar Bhimalpauram, Chairperson of CHMC. The team comprises of ex-officio members such as the hostel Wardens of the boys and girls hostels (Prof. Anil Kumar Vappula, and Ms. Asha Namboodri respectively), a representative from the faculty and staff quarters (Prof. Manish Shrivastava), a member overseeing mental health efforts (Prof. Priyanka Srivastava) and an administrative assistant to manage the affairs of the committee (Mr. Manohar). Apart from managing the Arogya Clinic, typical work involves streamlining the mediclaim approvals, approving medical leaves for students, looking at student medical reimbursements, scheduling of pest control measures on a regular basis and so on. “There’s a decently large list of small items.” But with the onset of the pandemic and its continued onslaught for over a year now, the scope of the Health Committee has only been widening. Explaining that this is the first time the CHMC has had to step in to provide direction to general policies that would otherwise be going through general administration, Prabhakar offers some examples,”The gym, which has temporarily shut down as we speak, is operated by the Physical Education Committee which typically decides the number of staffers required to man it. But over the course of a year, we’ve had to set guidelines on how only two staffers can come in everyday. Similarly with the mess, we decide if the workers can come in from outside, when they can come in, when they can leave, and so on.” With the initial guidelines being laid out for every individual committee, the expectation is that going forward each committee will unilaterally handle similar situations that face them with CMHC on advisory capacity.
Since January this year when a decision was made to gradually open up the campus allowing faculty, staff and some students to come back, a simultaneous safety net in the form of weekly campus-wide screenings for Covid-19 was launched. While the weekly screenings continue like clockwork, in the wake of the second wave of the coronavirus which is now known to be highly transmissible and airborne, CHMC has reworked its strategy. “Initially, the screenings were voluntary. But from a public health perspective, it is now *required* for all campus residents as well as visiting non-residents to participate in this initiative,” says Prabhakar. This is more so since a majority of the cases have been asymptomatic and would otherwise have gone undetected if not for the weekly screenings. Apart from the testing itself, a great deal of emphasis is being placed on installation and running of the GoCoronaGo app for contact tracing. Remarking about the advantages of the tracing app, Prabhakar narrates how a number of contacts of positive cases have been traced successfully and sent to a quarantine facility before conclusively testing positive .”It is an amazing success of contact tracing which is completely student run. Hats off to the Student Parliament and the team that is making it work!” Based on statistics collated from the screening efforts, it has been observed that after a peak in the week of March 28th, positive cases among hostel residents have dropped to about 4-5 a week. “This is to be contrasted with situations in comparable institutes where large clusters in hostel residents have been reported to be positive in a single week,” according to Prabhakar. However he cautions that while it does indicate a certain degree of control over the Covid cases in hostels, it’s too early to declare a success with the positive cases plateauing at 4-5 per week. With the recently published article in the Lancet journal pointing to strong evidence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus being predominantly airborne, the health committee too is enforcing guidelines in labs to reduce the density of people indoors. “We have tried to restrict timings in the labs to control the number of people at any given point in time and to ensure physical distancing between students takes place”, says Prabhakar. In workspaces that have a large number of desks, Prof. Sachin Chaudhari’s group at the Centre of Excellence on IoT for smart cities has started a pilot project of installing CO2 sensors. “Since our ACs do not have HVAC HEPA filters, CO2 will serve as good proxy for aerosols in air. It will tell us if the room is well ventilated or not. EU standard for COVID requires that CO2 levels are between 500-700ppm, which needs to be maintained by adding fresh outside air to the cooled air,” explains Prabhakar. If the pilot is successful, the sensors will be installed across all big labs on campus.
By virtue of being on the committee that sets rules currently inconveniencing people, Prabhakar is often at the receiving end of brickbats and complaints. “It’s not just students who crib, everyone from faculty, staff, visitors – essentially anyone who is inconvenienced will complain!,” he exclaims, adding,”I don’t take them too literally or seriously. I try to deal with whatever is at hand and try not to extrapolate to that particular person.” From maintaining a log of movements in and out, to picking up packages at the main gate that are no longer delivered to hostels or faculty doorsteps, to the length of the mandated quarantine period, and the recently enforced in-hostel room dining, there are frustrations that everyone has to deal with. “Pre-Covid time, there were zero restrictions on movement. Also, students who are used to having so many people around them their whole life find quarantining very difficult,” says Prabhakar. This is especially more so for those individuals sent into quarantine based on contact tracing before testing negative. While they are allowed to return to their hostel rooms, as a precautionary measure they’re advised to continue strict self-quarantine for a period of another week. But Prabhakar doesn’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary in the angst expressed. “If you lived in a gated community and say, had the community center shut down for the last one year, you would get the same kind of complaints. No difference,” he shrugs. With the enforcement of Covid-19 safety protocols on campus such as mandatory wearing of masks and physical distancing, it’s non-compliance is viewed seriously too. “This semester, 6 students were sent home primarily because they were putting at immediate risk the other campus residents,” he says.
For someone who does not reside on campus, Prabhakar is very hands-on and has been the go-to person for all things Covid. Ask him how he manages, and he laughs, “Usme kya hai! Ho Jata Hai” (What’s there in that! It happens!) He does admit though that it’s a bit exhausting for everybody on the committee but “Well, when things have to be done, they have to be done!”. Acknowledging Prabhakar’s efforts over the last year, Prof. PJ Narayanan, the Director says, “He has been doing a fantastic and thankless job. Even the students need to appreciate the gargantuan task he is doing, instead of complaining when his choices inconvenience them!” With the government opening up the vaccination drive for all above 18 years of age and decentralizing its procurement for individual states, Prabhakar already has his next work cut out for him. The plan is to get everyone on campus vaccinated and efforts in this direction will soon be underway.
With the current situation like 2020 all over again and the novel Coronavirus not being so novel anymore, (newer mutant strains notwithstanding), Prabhakar has a very simple message for all. “We understand what the pandemic is, we know how it spreads and how to tackle it – both at the personal level and community level. Studies are indicating that the long term effects are severe and not negligible. So as responsible citizens, it is mandatory that everyone understands hygiene and safety protocols and follows them to the best of their ability.” For now, this means going out for a haircut is not top priority for campus residents. “I tell them, I will arrange for a barber. Maybe he will not give you the haircut that you want, but he will give you a haircut.”