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Amid inadequate testing across India, West Bengal is “most disturbing”: Doctors

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A group of non-resident medical professionals has written an open letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee raising concerns over the “gross under-testing” and “misreporting of data” on the cause of death of COVID-19 patients.

Identifying themselves as Bengali physicians, health scientists, and healthcare providers with roots in the state, the healthcare professionals said that while they have concerns about inadequate testing across India, they find the situation in West Bengal particularly “most disturbing”.

“In the last week and a half, we have come across or watched with growing concerns, reports on the COVID-19 situation in West Bengal. There are two specific issues that are most disturbing to us: 1) the gross under-testing in West Bengal, and 2) the misreporting of data on the cause of death in COVID-19 patients,” the letter said.

Citing a report published in news agency Reuters, the doctors said that West Bengal has conducted just 33.7 tests per million as against the national average of around 156.9 per million, despite having the capacity to conduct around 1,000 tests a day.

“The number of truly affected cases depends on the extent of testing, the accuracy of the test results and, in particular, the frequency and scale of testing of asymptomatic cases who may have been exposed,” the letter said.

The professionals—who claimed that they were born, raised, and educated in West Bengal and have families who currently reside in the state—also said there is evidence over “gross underestimation” of COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“The gross underestimation in the number of truly affected cases may have potentially dangerous consequences, specifically in not being prepared with adequate healthcare capacity to handle the pandemic burden in the state, and failing to arrest the spread of the infection by asymptomatic cases who may be spreading unknowingly,” it added.

The letter, citing reports by physician groups treating COVID-19 patients in government hospitals in Kolkata, said that “only a state-appointed committee is allowed to declare if a patient has died from COVID-19”. “Even when coronavirus patients were dying with symptoms of respiratory failure, the committee was not citing COVID-19 as the cause of death,” the letter said.

“Not reporting the underlying COVID-19 as the cause of death is a falsification of data. In the face of a pandemic, World Health Organization (WHO) and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines instruct hospital staff, medical examiners, and other health officials to report the primary and underlying causes of death in the death certificate,” it said.

“As professionals in the field, we strongly urge the Chief Minister and the Ministry of Health of West Bengal to increase testing in the state by all means and take responsibility for accurate and consistent reporting of COVID-19 data. We urge the leaders of our beloved state to lead with science and humanity,” it added.

Till Wednesday, Bengal conducted tested 7,034 people for COVID-19. In comparison, Andhra Pradesh—reportedly the state with the highest number of tests—has 41,512 samples, Rajasthan 55,759, and Tamil Nadu 53045. Only Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab tested less than Bengal.

Banerjee has blamed the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), the nodal body for COVID-19 testing, for the low testing numbers in her state. She said the state initially wasn’t given testing kits and then it was supplied faulty kits, which Mamata said have now been withdrawn.

West Bengal has reported 15 deaths due to COVID-19 so far.

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