At least eleven nurses who worked at the Max Super Speciality Hospital, in Delhi’s Patparanj area, have tested positive for COVID-19. This is the second hospital promoted by Max Healthcare—one of India’s largest healthcare providers in the private sector—to develop a cluster of infections among its employees. Earlier this month, at least 39 nurses from Max’s Saket hospital—a dedicated COVID-19 centre—were sent into quarantine after a doctor, a nurse and a parademic tested positive. But more worrying have been accounts of healthcare workers employed at Max’s hospitals, which seemed to reveal a troubling irreverence by the administration towards following basic quarantine protocol for the safety of its staff.
Multiple healthcare workers told us that at both Max facilities—in Saket and Patparganj—nurses who were exposed to COVID-positive patients were allowed to return home or to their hostels, instead of being quarantined at the respective hospitals. More alarmingly, the healthcare workers said that Max did not even allow its nurses to isolate themselves for 14 days, as prescribed by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the World Health Organization. According to a healthcare worker at Max’s Saket facility who wished to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from the hospital administration, a nurse who was supposed to be under quarantine was asked to resume duty within three days of her isolation. Similar allegations emerged from Max’s Patparganj hospital, where two healthcare workers told us—also on the condition of anonymity, fearing for their jobs—that nurses under quarantine were taken to the hospital from their hostels and asked to assist with a surgery.
These allegations are grave because not only does one of India’s leading private healthcare providers stand accused of risking the lives of nurses who are at the front line in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, but also those of the patients and other health workers at the hospitals. Meanwhile, Max has represented itself, in a press conference and in emails exchanged with us, as an institution that has been proactive in ensuring the safety of its healthcare workers, with widescale testing of its staff and isolation wards in its hospitals. The contrasting accounts raise several grave questions, many of which have been left unanswered by Max.
The first outbreak took place at the Saket hospital, and Max issued a press statement about it on 13 April, noting that three healthcare staffers had tested positive. The statement added that there was “no chance” that they had contracted the infection from the hospital. But the statement also indicated that two patients who were initially admitted for cardiac issues had later tested positive for the novel coronavirus, on 9 April. It stated the administration had traced 39 healthcare workers who were exposed to the two patients, and had placed them under quarantine “in a separate and isolated wing at Max Hospital, Saket.”
The healthcare worker at Saket questioned the Max administration’s statement that the staff did not contract the virus at the hospital. “On what basis is the management saying that?” the worker asked. “There are two patients who are positive in the hospital already.” The worker continued, “Though they are saying that the staff are under quarantine, the quarantine is not being implemented properly for the staff.” According to the worker, at least one nurse who had attended to the COVID-positive patients and whose test results had already returned negative, had been asked to resume duty within three days. “The rule is that the staff who looked after positive patients should be quarantined for at least 14 days,” the worker said. The healthcare worker said that the nurse had resumed duty by 14 April, but four days later, she was back under quarantine again.