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‘COVID-19 cluster’ at IIT Madras: Over 100 test positive, university issues ‘lockdown’ till Thursday for students on campus

The Tamil Nadu govt said though the results showed a 20 percent positivity rate, there was no need for concern as measures including aggressive contact testing are in place as per the protocol

The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) has become a COVID-19 “cluster” with over 100 people testing positive since 1 December. Students living on campus currently said that the administration on Sunday issued a “lockdown” till Thursday in light of the recent outbreak.

PTI reported that a total of 104 students have tested positive and quoted Tamil Nadu health secretary J Radhakrishnan as saying that “all were doing well”.

Of the 444 samples lifted till date, 104 have tested positive for COVID-19 , he said and added that from 1 to 12 December, samples from the institute turning positive steadily increased. The situation escalated as 33 people tested positive on Monday alone.

“All of them are being treated at the King’s Institute of Preventive Medicine and Research as per the directive of Chief Minister K Palaniswami and they are all doing well,” Radhakrishnan told reporters.

Complete quarantine till Thursday, says student

Devan, a second year PhD student who is scheduled to undergo testing on Monday evening, said that the university on Sunday announced a nearly week-long “lockdown” and quarantine in the campus. “The administration has told us to quarantine in our rooms till Thursday,” he said.

He said that ahead of the outbreak in the campus, stringent protocol was in place for public spaces like the mess and hostels.

Speaking about the protocol, Devan said, “Earlier, we used to be able to sit 8 or 10 students on a bench. But as part of COVID-19 rules, only two students were allowed per bench.”

When asked about how the university was ensuring that the guidelines are followed, Devan said that the university had allowed research scholars to return after requests made by the students. “They told the students who were living in campus that they would revoke permission for it if the guidelines weren’t followed.”

However, reports have quoted students as saying the mess is likely to be the epicentre of the outbreak in the university. Devan also added that there is speculation among the students that a few mess workers tested positive, and are the origin of the “cluster”.

He said that a significant number of students would use the one stationary shop that is open for all students on campus, which could also have contributed to the outbreak. “There were also workers coming into campus from outside,” he added, citing one more possible catalyst for the outbreak.

Currently hosting only 10% of usual number of hostel residents, says university

In guidelines issued for the students, the administration said that all the departments, centres, labs, and the library have been shut “until further notice”, in light of the new cases. A research scholar at the university said that the students and staff that are currently in the campus have been asked to stay inside their rooms.

Reportedly, there are around 700 students accommodated in nine hostels as of Monday. A spokesperson for the institute said that classes are being held online.

A statement by IIT-M was quoted as saying that the hostels are currently hosting “only 10 percent” of the usual number of residents. It added that all the students have undergone the COVID-19 test after a few tested positive.

Students still in hostels are being supplied packed food, said IIT.

In a 13 December statement, IIT-Madras said, “The Institute has been functioning on limited capacity with only 10% students in the hostels. As soon as a spurt in symptomatic cases was reported by some students residing in the hostels, the Institute has consulted the civic authorities and has arranged for all students residing in hostels to be tested for COVID. To be cautious, all students have been asked to remain in their rooms and packed food is being supplied to the students in the hostels.”

“IIT Madras has been permitting research scholars who need to do experimental work to return to campus after a 14-day quarantine and COVID-19 tests. Our capacity to quarantine (with room service) is limited, and this limits the rate at which we can bring back scholars to the hostels,” the statement added.

“Some Project Staff working on research projects and staying in the city have been coming to work in the labs, once this was permitted by the government. A SoP (Standard operating procedure) is in place to determine how many scholars and project staff can work safely in each lab based on its size, ventilation etc. Research scholars who wished to return earlier (out of turn with respect to the SoP involving quarantine before release into the hostels) were permitted to do so if they were willing to stay off campus similar to project staff, till their turn came to be accepted in the hostels, and provided their lab could accommodate them,” the statement was quoted as saying by The News Minute.

Tamil Nadu govt says ‘no need for concern’

Meanwhile, Radhakrishnan said though the results showed a 20 percent positivity rate, there was no need for concern as measures including aggressive contact testing are in place as per the protocol.

Later, the top official told PTI he was now visiting the IIT-M campus for inspection and those being treated at the hospital. Health officials have also inspected the campus, he said.

“As soon as we started getting cases, we went in for aggressive testing and contact tracing. A majority of them are students and some canteen workers.”

On the source of infection, he said “it is said that it could be from the mess,” but there was nothing to panic about further spread since all measures were in place to combat it, he said.