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4 positive lab staff, but all 2,123 contacts ‘negative’: From Kerala, a validation of how masks cap spread of Covid-19


Written by Vishnu Varma
| Kochi |

Updated: July 30, 2020 6:37:07 pm

 how masks prevent spread of Covid-19 Nearly 2,000 people were put under quarantine after four staff members of Janakeeya laboratory in Alappuzha district tested positive.
Last month, a report published by the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had underscored the importance of wearing face-masks by citing a case study of a hair salon in Missouri. Despite two stylists at the salon having confirmed coronavirus infections with symptoms, nearly 140 people who interacted with them finished their 14-day quarantine periods with no signs of illness. The reason: the stylists wore face coverings.

Now in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, a similar case study, though much larger in scale, has emerged.

The benefits of wearing face coverings and gloves have come to light after a total of 2,123 people are believed to have been spared from contracting the coronavirus infection after visiting a laboratory where four staff members tested positive for the virus. On Wednesday (July 29), health and local body officials in Aryad block panchayat were relieved when all of them completed their two-week mandatory quarantine with no symptoms of the infection

Jayan Thomas, a standing committee member of the Aryad block panchayat and an active member of the Snehajalakam palliative community which runs the Janakeeya laboratory, said, “On July 16, one of our staff members tested Covid-positive before undergoing a surgery. The same day, three others also tested positive. We immediately grew concerned because a lot of people, especially the elderly, visit the laboratory for tests. When we checked the visitors list between July 2 and July 15, we realised that 2,123 people had some kind of interaction with the staff during the period.
Janakeeya laboratory in Alappuzha district of Kerala
“Even if 10% of them test positive, taking into account their families and their immediate primary contacts, it would lead to a huge community spread in the region.”

The laboratory, founded many years ago to cater to the vulnerable sections of the society by offering subsidised tests, was extremely popular in the region. It also had a palliative wing as part of which a nurse and a volunteer-cum-driver would visit households in coastal areas to check up on bed-ridden patients. Both persons had daily access to the lab. At one point, Thomas said he feared that such benefits and goodwill accrued over the years would be offset if a super-spread takes place.

The laboratory was shut and all staff were directed to stay in quarantine. Testing all the visitors was impractical, so the health department and local body officials decided to subject over 2100 people and their immediate contacts to a strict 14-day quarantine. Since the visitors’ book at the laboratory had details, it wasn’t difficult to contact them. If they noticed the slightest of symptoms, they were asked to contact the health department.

Thanks to the decentralised model of the Kerala local body system, volunteers and health workers fanned out across ten wards of the panchayat, physically monitoring those under quarantine and placing calls to them at regular intervals. Separately, those at high-risk of contracting the infection such as daily visitors to the lab like Thomas and the palliative staff were tested with rapid antigen kits. But all samples came back negative.

Finally on Wednesday, when the 14-day quarantine period of the visitors to the lab ended, Thomas and the local health authorities let out a sigh of relief. None had symptoms of infection.

“It’s a victory of our safety guidelines and the importance of wearing masks like the government says. Right at the start of the Covid outbreak, we had called in our staff and outlined to them the guidelines to be observed at the lab. Visitors were not to be allowed in without masks. The staff must wear masks, gloves and use sanitisers. These guidelines have been our strength. Our case is evidence that if the right measures are adopted, we can prevent ourselves from getting infected,” said Thomas.

Thomas said the staff member who first tested positive at the lab is believed to have contracted the infection from a neighbouring fish worker who had visited the Chellanam harbour in Ernakulam, one of the biggest clusters in the state

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