Saigon medics break their back to track Covid-19

By Thu Anh   February 28, 2021 | 05:07 am PT
It was very dark as doctor Doan Van Cong began a new day of a crucial mission that had already lasted a month.

It had taken just 30 minutes for Cong, deputy head of the laboratory and diagnostic imaging department at the Binh Thanh District medical center, to finish preparing swabbing kits, protective clothing and necessary documents.

It was still dark as the 36-year-old Cong, along with four colleagues, began conducting random Covid-19 tests in areas around the Mien Dong (Eastern Region) Bus Station in Saigon for the 12th day.

From 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., they worked with local medics to take 100 samples of people from Hanoi and the provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Dak Lak in the Central Highlands.

Then the group quickly returned to their office to start other work.

Medics take random swab samples at Mien Dong Bus Station every morning. Photo by VnExpress/Thu Anh.

Medics take random swab samples at the Mien Dong Bus Station every morning, February 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Thu Anh.

One of them took the samples to the Thu Duc Hospital for carrying out RT-PCR tests. Some received people coming from Covid-19 hotspots to check their medical declarations and take their swab samples. Others traveled to two quarantine facilities in Wards 21 and 28 to take swab samples of those under centralized quarantine.

After a long day, at around 6 p.m., they started traveling with medics in the district to take random swab samples at local restaurants. It was midnight when the medics returned to their office yet again.

The team members have been traveling from place to place and working around the clock for a month, Cong said they initially collected test samples at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport; and after an infection chain was found, they moved on to locked down neighborhoods and worked with the residents there.

In collecting samples at bus stations, they had to work from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., said Ho Minh Hoang, head of the medical center in Binh Thanh District’s Ward 26. This means the team members had to be up at 3 a.m. to prepare, which was exhausting.

Hoang and Cong later suggested that the HCMC Center for Disease Control (CDC) and bus stations allow them to start their mission at 5 a.m.

"We have never gotten enough sleep," said Le Thanh Dat, 30, with dark circles under his eyes. He said that due to the massive amount of work, all his teammates worked "with 200 percent of our energy," so less than five hours of sleep per day had become normal.

To keep their families safe and reduce travel time, the medics have decided to stay at their office and sleep on the floors.

"We fall asleep right after we lie down," Cong said. Worrying they would not hear the alarm in the early morning, they set up several loud alarms.

During the day, even grabbing a few minutes of sleep was like getting a treasure. A stool, a table, chairs in bus stations, all these became their "beds."

Medics at Binh Thanh District sleep whenever they have time to. Photo courtesy of Le Thanh Dat.

Medics of Binh Thanh District sleep whenever they can. Photo courtesy of Le Thanh Dat.

After taking swab samples, the group also tracked people who’d come into close contact with Covid-19 patients in town during the Lunar New Year holiday. On February 7, three days before the week-long holiday kicked off, Binh Thanh District confirmed five new Covid-19 cases, giving the medics "unprecedentedly exhausting days."

The obstinate

Truong Sy Phu, 45, biologist at Ward 25, told VnExpress that he is not afraid of having his schedule changed or to stay away from his family. The thing that concerned him the most was that many people did not willingly start their quarantine period after coming into contact with Covid-19 patients.

On the night of February 8, Phu received a list of locals who had come into close contact with Covid-19 patients and called them immediately, telling them to stay at home and not to meet anyone.

But one man rejected Phu’s calls. After receiving text messages from the biologist, he opened his door and talked to Phu from the second floor, saying he wanted to stay at home until the holiday is over. The conversation turned sour as Phu tried to convince the man to enter a quarantine facility.

"I am sad when people get mad at me in the middle of the night. I also have sympathy for them, I know they are worried, but I cannot step back or break the regulations," Phu maintained.

Phu (R) talks with a man asking for a certificate confirming he is not from a Covid-19 hotspot. Photo by VnExpress/Thu Anh.

Phu (R) talks with a man asking for a certificate confirming he does not hail from a Covid-19 hotspot. Photo by VnExpress/Thu Anh.

Around three kilometers from Ward 25, in Ward 22, a three-member family from Hai Duong’s Thanh Mien District refused to make health declarations.

They had stayed inside for days and refused to be quarantined before local police arrived at their place and warned them against breaking the decreed protocol.

Since January 28, when community transmission returned to Vietnam after almost two months, the city has detected 36 cases in eight districts. Of these, 35 are linked to the outbreak at the Tan Son Nhat airport and the other Hai Duong, the northern province that is currently the country’s Covid-19 epicenter.

HCMC suspended all non-essential services, shut down bars, karaoke parlors, cinemas, discotheques, and banned religious events on February 9 after 31 Covid cases were diagnosed.

The city has found no new cases in the last 16 days. But the medics still work around the clock, facing infection risks.

Do Van Hien, 44, head of the Ward 22 medical center, has had an unforgettable month battling the virus. His phone number has been a hotline receiving information and answering questions related to the pandemic. He also meets those who’ve come into close contact with patients, checks their travel history and takes them to quarantine facilities.

He said: "During the pandemic, we are needed the most. Medics like us, even if we are tired, have to work hard and cannot afford to fall sick."

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