The Bombay High Court on Monday directed the state government to immediately conduct the Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test of all frontline warriors (including doctors, nurses, policemen) attending to patients of Covid-19 working in the entire Vidarbha region.
Division bench of Justice RK Deshpande and Justice NR Borkar of Nagpur bench was hearing a PIL filed by the Citizen Forum For Equality, an NGO seeking urgent directions to the Union, State, ICMR and the Nagpur Municipal Corporation to conduct the RT-PCR Test of all frontline workers in Vidarbha region attending to the Covid-19 facilities and to frame appropriate guidelines for conducting such test on them in a periodic manner.
Court also directed Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to frame the appropriate policy and prescribe the protocol for periodical testing of the frontline workers in the entire Vidarbha region, on RT-PCR method within a period of one week.
Various other reliefs were sought in the PIL, including the directon to release all the Covid-19 suspects admitted in isolation/quarantine wards having tested negative in RT-PCR Test with immediate effect. Also, the petitioner NGO sought fixation of price of the Rapid Antibody Test Kit and directions to all the private and government hospitals and nursing homes to make the rapid antibody test the first step of screening of non-Covid patients before admitting them in the hospital.
Advocate Tushar Mandlekar appeared on behalf of the petitioner, Government Pleader SY Deopujari for the State, Additional Solicitor General UM Aurangabadkar for the Union, ICMR and National Disaster Management Authority.
In light of previous directions issued by a single bench in the same matter headed by Justice Rohit Deo, a pilot project of testing the medical and police personnel, who are engaged in active duty in the two containment zones of Mominpura and Satranjipura in the Nagpur area was implemented.
An affidavit dated May 25 states that 81 police personnel working in the said areas were tested, swabs were taken and sent to the lab. Out of the 81, only one personnel tested positive for Covid-19.
Moreover, affidavit filed on behalf of the Commissioner, NMC states that if frontline workers are using PPE Kits or other protective gears like hand gloves, masks, coat etc then such workers are not required to be tested for Covid-19 through RT-PCR test as there are very less chances of them being infected.
NMC took a clear stand that ICMR guidelines regarding RT-PCR test are being strictly followed and it is not necessary to conduct the said test on each and every frontline warriors of Covid-19 as they are discharging their duties with due precautionary measures and do not fall within the ambit of "High Risk Contact". It was also argued that directions are passed to conduct the RT-PCR test on all the frontline warriors, then it would cost the State exchequer heavily and NMC will be require to deploy man power for conducting such test.
As per the ICMR guidelines, there were two categories of patients who could be tested through RT-PCR method-
(i) asymptomatic direct contact of a confirmed case, and
(ii) asymptomatic high risk contact of a confirmed case
NMC argued that all the frontline workers in Vidarbha region are not eligible to be referred to as "high risk contact"
Court held that Covid-19 disease is both "symptomatic and asymptomatic" and hence asymptomatic frontline health workers cannot be deprived of the RT-PCR test. The bench also rejected the submission that the said workers are not eligible to coem unde "high risk contact" as per ICMR guidelines- .
"It is not the case of any of the respondents that the cases of frontline workers are not covered by the definition of "suspected cases" in the guidelines of WHO. In our view, the cases of frontline workers are covered by such definition of "suspected cases" We are also of the view that the cases of asymptomatic direct and high risk contacts of confirmed cases of frontline workers are also covered by guideline No.(5) of the ICMR guidelines, relied upon by the respondents. Its operation cannot be restricted to the "households of a positive patient without protection" and the cases "in close proximity within one meter of a confirmed case".
We have not been pointed out any valid basis for the rider of "households of a positive patient without protection" and the cases "in close proximity within one meter of a confirmed case", as is stated in the affidavit filed by the respondent No.6- the Commissioner, Nagpur Municipal Corporation."
Moreover, Court refused to accept that since the frontline workers using PPE Kits and other protective gears, like hand-gloves, masks, coats, etc., they have no chances of getting infected.
Referring to the importance of safety of the frontline workers, the bench said-
"Their life is more precious, because they are the warriors and saviours, compromising or putting their own life at stake to save the lives of others, by relentlessly working on a call for duty. We cannot afford to lose them, because our own life depends upon their fitness to work without any stress or tension. There cannot be any compromise in respect of it.
The Society in general and the State in particular owe it to the frontline warriors to take all possible measures as would minimize if not obliterate the threat of infection, assuming arguendo, that the advisory or guidelines issued by ICMR do not cover the frontline warriors till the symptoms are manifested. In our view, the State would be duty bound to take additional measures and ensure the minimization of the risk to the medical, police personnel and all frontline workers, to protect the fundamental right to life under Article 21 read with the duty under Article 47 of the Constitution of India."
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