Govt warns surge can overwhelm resources

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The surge in Covid-19 cases across the country at present has the potential to overwhelm India’s health care infrastructure, the Union government said in a warning to states on Tuesday, even as the national positivity rate crossed 5% for the first time since October, indicating the severity of the ongoing second wave.

The government urged states to take immediate steps to limit the outbreak and strengthen hospitals and enhance intensive care capacities.

During the weekly briefing, the Union government officials separately identified the current hotbeds (10 districts in particular, of which eight are in Maharashtra) and said immediate steps must be taken to improve testing of people and isolation of those infected in order to control a situation that one expert described as going from “bad to worse”.

“Since the past few weeks, the situation is going from bad to worse, which is a serious cause for concern. In some states in particular, there is a huge cause for worry, so no state, no part of our country, no district should be complacent. What the trends show is that the virus is still very active, can penetrate our defences, and when we think we have found ways to control the virus, it strikes back. It has done so in our country; it has done so in other countries,” said VK Paul, member (Health) of Niti Aayog.

Paul was speaking at the briefing where the Union health secretary gave new figures that underscore the worsening trend. Among them was the average positivity rate for the country, which has risen above 5% for the first time since October 22.

“The weekly national average positivity rate is 5.65%. Maharashtra has a weekly average of 23%, Punjab has a weekly average of 8.82%, Chhattisgarh 8%, Madhya Pradesh 7.82%, Tamil Nadu 2.50%, Karnataka 2.45%, Gujarat 2.2% and Delhi 2.04%,” health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said.

Also read | 14 countries express ‘shared concerns’ over WHO report on Covid-19 origins

In a letter to states, he separately wrote: “…the current rise in cases is of concern and has the potential of overwhelming health care systems, unless checked right now.”

Ten districts in the country currently account for the majority of active Covid-19 cases, with eight of them in Maharashtra alone, the officials said at the briefing.

While testing has been low over the past two days due to the weekend and the festival of Holi, the daily average of cases added across the country over the week till March 29 was around 58,000, the highest since October 20.

The surge, Bhushan said, was due to inadequate Covid-19 testing, lack of public health measures, and because of specific events or places where crowding happens.

“The need is for states to exponentially increase Covid-19 testing, especially, the proportion of RT-PCR testing should be increased up to at least 70%. The rising cases also highlight public health measures are not being taken as per requirement such as implementation of containment strategy, effective contact tracing, appropriately physically isolating positive cases, etc,” he added.

The districts with high active case loads are Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur, Thane, Nashik, Aurangabad, Bengaluru Urban, Nanded, Delhi, and Ahmednagar.

To be sure, India’s vaccination drive is just picking up momentum. A total of 62.3 million vaccine shots have been administered till Tuesday at 7pm, with 9 million people having received both shots, and 44.3 million one. The drive is expected to kick up a hear from April 1 when anyone over the age of 45 years becomes eligible for a vaccine.

Also read | With 27,918 Covid-19 cases, Maharashtra’s tally at 2,773,435

In Maharashtra, officials have floated the idea of a lockdown in order to contain the outbreak, but added that they will first explore regional restrictions and curbs such as closing restaurants and theatres before considering a blanket shutdown.

In Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said more hospitals beds were being set aside for Covid-19 patients.

On Saturday, the Centre released a list of 47 districts across the country that are currently reporting an unusual surge of Covid-19 cases.

“Some districts that saw a high number of cases in August-November are again seeing a high growth rate of cases. In addition, a number of new districts that saw a limited prevalence earlier, are worryingly, showing a surge in Covid cases. States/UTs and districts that have current low levels of cases, however, cannot be complacent,” the letter read.

The government outlined five areas for the districts to focus on: improving testing and tracing, ensuring proper isolation of infected people, strengthening health care capacities, enforcing appropriate behaviour in public places and prioritising vaccinations.

The government also asked to states to demarcate containment zones with stringent controls in place and improve surveillance by mapping cases and reviewing statistics from different areas (including indicators such as the rate of test positivity, growth of cases, case fatality, and the doubling time of cases). “All districts with high case loads and fast growth of cases must ensure 100% saturation vaccination of the priority age group of 45 years and above in the coming two weeks,” the letter read.

Experts said this phase is critical in controlling the outbreak.

“How we act at this stage will make a huge difference in how the disease progresses. Vaccination and following Covid-appropriate behavior is the key in controlling the disease,” said Dr GC Khilnani, former head, department of pulmonology, AIIMS.

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