Hajj 2021: Saudi medical staff ready for arrival of pilgrims

Teams are prepared to deal with Covid-19 infections as well as heat-related cases in temperatures likely to exceed 40ºC

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With less than a day to go before the arrival of the first pilgrims for the second Hajj to be held during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials in Makkah said they were fully prepared to take care of the 60,000 faithful permitted to attend this year.

"We have 1,000 staff located in four hospitals and six health clinics at the holy sites," Hamad Feehan, spokesman for the Makkah health authority, told The National.

The four hospitals – Jabal Al Rahma hospital, East Arafat hospital, Mina Al Wadi hospital and a mobile field hospital – operate only during the Hajj season. Each has special quarantine units for pilgrims who might contract Covid-19 despite the rigorous precautions put in place by the authorities.

Other quarantine sites have been set up around the holy venues so that any cases of suspected infection can be immediately isolated and tested.

"In case a pilgrim gets infected, a medical protocol and staff are in place. The pilgrim can finish their pilgrimage, but alone and with a special method," Mr Feehan said.

He said the measures taken already would hopefully prevent any Covid-19 infections.

"Precautions are in place. Awareness is spread among everyone. Special criteria were in place to be eligible for this Hajj."

Medical staff at Mina Al Wadi hospital stand ready to receive Hajj pilgrims after days of preparation, including drills. Balquees Basalom / The National

Only people between the ages of 18 and 65 who are free of chronic conditions and have had both doses of Covid-19 vaccine are allowed to perform Hajj this year.

"Through the precautionary and preventive measures taken, whether in the pilgrims' accommodation or at the holy sites, as well as the supervising field teams accompanying the pilgrims, we are keen that no cases be detected," Mr Feehan said.

Further, all those working to support the Hajj must have "Mohasn" status on the Tawakalna health app, which indicates that they have been fully vaccinated or have already been infected and recovered.

Along with Covid-19, the health teams have prepared for more common complaints such as heat stroke resulting from summer temperatures above 40ºC. Forty-five halls have been set up to handle cases of heat-related fatigue, each with 10 to 20 beds, while 35 ambulances are on standby to ferry pilgrims for treatment.

In addition to the hospital and health clinics at the holy sites, all 10 hospitals and 82 medical centres in Makkah are available to offer help if needed.

Health teams have held 12 internal and external drills to check their preparedness, Dr Hattan Bojan, director of emergency medical services in Hajj, told The National.

"We carry out these drills to test our systems, to get involved deeply with our staff, to evaluate how to deal with emergency responses, how to recover from these incidents, and how to mitigate the events," Dr Bojan said.

The internal drills include situations such as power failures or fires in the hospitals, while the external drills include dealing with mass casualties.

"In such a drill, we have 20 patients; they have multiple traumas, so we test our communication and co-ordination with the teams in the fields and their response, how they treat and transfer their patients to the hospitals," Dr Bojan said.

This year, the drills placed emphasis on infection-control measures, he said.

Taya Abdulsalam, a nurse at Mina Al Wadi hospital, has been working during Hajj for 14 years but is preparing for a new experience this year.

"This year definitely will be different from other years because of the pandemic," she said.

While pilgrims were allowed to perform Hajj last year, the pilgrimage was limited to a much smaller number of residents of the kingdom.

"Preventive measures are in place, and we are trying to be aware and educated on how we will receive the patients, especially as we are located in the middle of Mina, surrounded by pilgrims," Ms Abdulsalam said.

"The good thing about working during Hajj season is that we, the medical staff, experience a spiritual feeling when helping the guests of Allah."

Updated: July 18, 2021, 6:22 AM