How to catch a Covid patient, Sherlock-style

Remote heat maps, phone tracking, crowd sourcing apps and spying neighbours have all been pressed to the task.

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It is neighbourly nosiness that authorities are banking on to catch the delinquents
Sneaking out of isolation wards, ignoring quarantine to get married with 1,000 guests in attendance, hopping cities to camouflage travel history - some Indian Covid-19 patients will do anything to defy social distancing advisories, forcing doctors and administrators to put on their sleuth hats to track them down.

Remote heat maps, phone tracking, crowd sourcing apps and spying neighbours have all been pressed to the task. States have to create three categories — one of Covid-19 positive patients, a second list of suspected cases that need to be quarantined and a third of people who can be kept in home-isolation with strict restrictions. It is the last that is giving sleepless nights to authorities.

Srinagar district magistrate Shahid Choudhury laughs at the suggestion that he may have turned into a desi Sherlock Holmes in the last one month but admits that it has taken ‘private eye’ skills to track down the evaders. Since March 10, the administration has set up a 24X7 control room with heat maps and phone trackers to locate people. The administration has also recently launched a website and app called ‘talaash srinagar’ allowing people to inform the administration of suspected Covid cases in their neighbourhood. Those skipping quarantine can now be tracked in a couple of hours.


Choudhary explains: “We received information that a student had returned from Italy past midnight on March 19. We only had his father’s name and that he lived in the Lal Bazaar area. So we tracked down the 27 people with that name in the area, then used phone records to narrow the search, eventually locating the patient by 3 am.” The Srinagar administration has also taken information from banks on customers who have used ATMs abroad to recover travel history, ticket information from travel agents and flight manifestos to track “delinquents”. Tracking time for another suspected patient who had returned from Bangladesh but had not declared himself was even shorter, less than half an hour. The control room gets 100-150 calls a day with fearful neighbours leaving anonymous tips on those hiding their travel history.

It is this neighbourly nosiness that the Kerala administration is banking on too. The state is currently tracking over 74,000 people in home quarantine. Dr Amar Fettle, state nodal officer for Covid, says the lessons from the Nipah outbreak have helped the authorities. “We have made three-member teams in wards to keep tabs on patients. We visit them at random times, make phone calls and keep checking with neighbours to confirm their statements,” he says.

The administration has created 'patient flowcharts' for each of the positive cases with the date, time and place of where the person went and who they met after arriving in the state. The flowcharts were circulated widely on social media and in newspapers to inform the public. “We are following the triangulation procedure which means that patient information has to be verified from more than one source, so if the suspected Covid patient says that he went to his village at 10am, we have used CCTV footage, call records and mobile GPS to confirm this fact,” he says.
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It helps not just to bring the secondary cases into the medical system, but more importantly keeps those who have not been in touch with the patient out of the system. “It is necessary not to clog the testing system. So if we have the exact date and time for the person’s visit, only the two-three people who met the infected person need to be tested, not the 997 others in the village,” he adds.

Fettle says that the phone GPS or app have only been partially successful and have to be supported with a team of enthusiastic volunteers who can check if the people have given misleading information intentionally or otherwise.

Like Dr Fettle, Mumbai’s assistant municipal commissioner for Ward G North, Kiran Dighavkar, depends on the feet-onground approach to check on the 47 quarantined patients in Dharavi, Mahim and Dadar. Most people live in rooms that are cheek-by-jowl, and there is little by way of social distancing. But Dighavkar says that a police van patrols outside the quarantined homes every four hours to keep residents on alert. The team of doctors, volunteers and police have become unwelcome guests arriving at odd hours. “We noticed people kept their phones at home to avoid detection or washed off the quarantine stamps on their hands and started going out on the pretext of getting groceries or medicines. So our teams keep an eye on them with the help of neighbours,” he says.

His team recently caught a 43-year-old Dharavi resident who had returned from the Gulf and left home quarantine. “We managed to track him down and admitted him to a hospital,” Dighavkar says. The man had used chemical to remove the home quarantine stamp.
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But authorities admit that awareness levels are going up. Many people are now coming to hospitals, admitting that they were afraid of turning themselves in earlier.
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