Gurugram: The state health department on Saturday instructed civil surgeons in all districts of Haryana to set up designated centres for ‘non-medical’ Covid-19 tests, which will be chargeable at the same rates being levied by private laboratories. ‘Non-medical’ tests, health department officials explained, refer to those tests which are administered to individuals who require a Covid-negative certificate to return to work or for travel purposes.
The development comes after several districts, including Gurugram, started witnessing a sudden influx of people seeking Covid-19 tests at primary healthcare centres (PHCs) since September 7, when the state government allowed walk-in tests (without a doctor’s prescription) for Covid-19.
In Gurugram, the district health department will set up a dedicated facility for non-medical tests at Civil Hospital in Sector 10 in the coming week, confirmed Dr Virender Yadav, chief medical officer. This is also the first time during the Covid-19 outbreak that the health department will charge for any test conducted as part of its public health response.
As per the Saturday’s order (a copy of which is with HT), an RT-PCR test will be chargeable at ₹1,600, while a rapid antigen test will cost ₹650. An ELISA (enzyme-linked immunoassay) test, which is done to check for presence of antibodies, will cost ₹250.
“Creating a separate facility for non-medical tests will take away some strain that our PHCs have been facing, ever since walk-in tests were introduced. The removal of the mandatory prescription rider has resulted in many individuals, in both blue and white collar jobs, seeking tests to prove to their employers that they do not have Covid-19, but that is not what we were trying to facilitate. I strongly advise that only those people who have had confirmed contact with a positive patients, or who have symptoms, seek a free test,” said Yadav, emphasizing that all tests conducted for medical purposes will remain free of cost.
On Saturday, HT spoke to multiple people seeking non-medical tests to understand their reasons for doing so. Manish Yadav, who works at a private insurance firm in the city and was getting himself tested at a PHC in Wazirabad, said, “My job involves visiting people’s homes to verify their documents. My employer has called me back to work after two months, but said I will need a Covid-negative certificate. They are not paying for the test, so I came here because it’s free.”
Manju Sindhu, a teacher who works at a private school in Delhi’s RK Puram area, approached the Gurugram health department’s office on Jharsa Road for an RT-PCR test over the weekend. “With the metro having reopened, I am expected to go to school two to three times a week, but not without producing a negative certificate. I came to know that we can get tested for free here,” she said.
Nearly identical stories were narrated by a domestic help whose new employer had asked her to get tested before joining work, as well as an industry worker in Udyog Vihar whose employer declined to pay for his test.
“This is the main issue, and it diverts testing resources away from those who may require it for medical diagnosis. Any employer who insists on a Covid-negative certificate should ideally be willing to pay for it as well. Our focus is to isolate positive cases, keep an eye out for symptoms, and prevent deaths,” Yadav said.
On September 5, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) had issued a revised testing advisory to all states, paving the way for walk-in tests. The revised criteria was implemented in Gurugram on September 7. According to estimates given by doctors and lab technicians across various PHCs in the district, the demand for non-medical tests has been rising with each passing day since then.
“We were earlier getting 10 to 15 people in a day. Now, about 30 to 40 people come in demanding to be tested,” said Anantha K, a senior lab technician with the health department.
Experts, on the other hand, were critical of the state health department’s decision to charge for Covid-19 tests. Malini Aisola, co-convener, All India Drug Action Network, said, “All public testing for Covid-19 should be free of cost. It is an unfair practice for the government to be charging for tests conducted as part of a public health response. It is evident from the health department’s own observations that a large section of the population, who require tests for so-called ‘non-medical’ reasons, are not able to afford them. In that sense, this policy is also an exclusionary one.”
Echoing similar views, Rajesh Kumar, epidemiologist and former head of the department of community medicine, PGIMER, Chandigarh, said, “Every single Covid-19 test administered by the government needs to be free. I don’t understand what is meant by a ‘non-medical’ test. Every test plays an important role in preventing the spread of Covid-19.”
Non-medical tests can also be availed for interstate travel purposes, or “for joining any educational institution”, as per the health department’s order on Saturday.
No fresh case in Bhondsi Jail
Meanwhile, 101 rapid antigen tests were administered to inmates at Bhondsi Jail on Saturday, and no new cases of Covid-19 were reported. A total of 42 prisoners have so far tested positive for the disease, with 35 patients having already recovered.
Saturday marked the third testing drive in Bhondsi prison this month. “As of now, none of the patients have shown severe symptoms. All those who have tested positive have been made to undergo a period of 17 days’ isolation at a facility in Sector 9. Soon, such patients will be kept under observation at a community centre in Begumpur Khatola,” said Sanjay Kumar, assistant jail superintendent.
Health department officials did not share any plan to conduct further testing inside the prison, but said they are keeping a close watch on inmates’ symptoms. “All prisoners who are sent outside for any purpose will be quarantined on return, tested and only then released to his usual barracks,” said Dr Jai Prakash Sharma, district surveillance officer, Gurugram.