Voices from the Field: Dr. Sara Saeed (Pakistan)

Sara Saeed takes the temperature of airport passengers. (Photo courtesy of Sara Saeed)

Dr. Sara Saeed is a fellow of the 12th cohort of the Pakistan FELTP. She is presently working as an Assistant Airport Health Officer at Islamabad International Airport.

"It was January 22, 2020 when I came to know about an outbreak of pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China through media; probably a new virus. The same day, my team and I started thermal screening of passengers arriving from China and checked each and every passenger for fever. On February 4, I received a call from the air traffic control tower notifying me that a flight was landing from China carrying a passenger with fever. I checked the passenger on board and sent him to the hospital with all precautions. He was the first suspected case at Islamabad Airport.

Since then, I have been doing surveillance, thermal screening, contact tracing and health education for passengers in the form of brochures, informational materials, and personal briefings. Working at the airport is a bit different from other healthcare setups. Initially, screening was started only for those arriving from China. Later on, by the end of February when we had the first confirmed case in Pakistan, strict thermal screening also started for those arriving from Iran, Italy, and Afghanistan. Within a few weeks, as it turned into a pandemic, screening became mandatory for every international passenger.

Since then, my team and I have screened more than 390,000 passengers at Islamabad Airport arriving from different countries. In case any person is found symptomatic, he or she is separated from the rest of the passengers to an isolation area at the airport, where they are interviewed, physically examined, and then shifted to designated hospitals through a separate gate with minimum possible interaction with other people.

I experienced a lot of problems due to meager human resources and the irrational and uncooperative behavior of some passengers due to their fear of quarantine. Many times, suspected cases misbehaved and tried to escape en route to the hospital but were caught by law enforcing agencies. On the other hand, I also encountered willing, compliant, and well-informed people who followed our standard operating procedures voluntarily. During this pandemic, non-availability of a well-equipped and spacious quarantine facility at Islamabad International Airport was badly felt.

After COVID-19 community spread was detected, we also began thermal screening of domestic passengers. I conducted contact tracing and sampling of suspected crew members, including cargo staff. Being an airport health officer, I am looking after all agencies, airlines, and cargo, along with passengers. All agencies and airlines were educated regarding personal protection and disinfection protocols, and random checks are also performed."