Facing repeated criticism, India has decided to change testing criteria for COVID-19 to include all pneumonia cases, regardless of travel or contact history.
In an advisory to hospitals on Friday, the government said: “No suspected COVID-19 patient should be turned away from any hospital and the admission of any such patient should be notified to NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control) or IDSP (Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme) immediately. Similarly, all pneumonia patients must also be notified to NCDC or IDSP so that they can be tested for COVID-19. Hospitals to ensure social distancing in their premises.”
Earlier, testing was limited to symptomatic patients with travel or contact history, and symptomatic health workers with contact history. As part of sentinel surveillance, only random samples of pneumonia cases were being tested.
A senior Health Ministry official confirmed that “the testing protocol has been changed today”. While health officials have maintained that there is no community transmission, they said the new testing protocol would provide conclusive evidence of whether or not it has happened.
The decision came on a day which saw the highest single-day jump of 63 new cases, taking the total to 236. While 23 have recovered so far, four have died.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in a statement, said: “15,404 samples from 14,514 individuals have been tested for SARS-CoV2 as on 20th March 2020 6 PM IST. 236 individuals have been confirmed positive among suspected cases and contacts of known positive cases.”
Speaking in the Lok Sabha during Question Hour, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said there is no indication of community transmission in India so far.
Asked about a man who had travelled from Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu by train and tested positive there, without any history of contact of travel, Dr R R Gangakhedkar, head of epidemiology at ICMR said: “In these things, you have to trust the patient. We have also heard he has no contact history, we are trying to find out.”
Although India has banned all commercial international passenger flights for a week, the Health Ministry in a letter to state principal secretaries (health) said: “In view of local transmission of the disease, increase in number of cases and deaths being reported in Australia, UK and USA, it has now been (decided) to expand the universal screening for all passengers coming from Australia, the UK and USA and risk-profiling them for either quarantine or isolation based on risk assessment.”
The government has also decided to grant leave to officials aged above 50 years who have conditions like diabetes, respiratory problems and renal disease up to April 4.
In a video conference meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief ministers and state health ministers, Dr Balram Bhargava, Secretary, Health, Research, and DG, ICMR, said India is currently in phase 2 of transmission, emphasising that it has a window to take action and minimise transmission.
Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan and Health Secretary Preeti Sudan were among those present at the meeting. Modi said the next 3-4 weeks are crucial in efforts to contain the spread of the virus, and the most important measure is social distancing.
Meanwhile, in a letter to medical superintendents of RML, Safdarjung and Lady Hardinge hospitals in the capital, the health ministry said OPDs should not be stopped even if elective surgeries are suspended for now.
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