On a day that saw the highest single-day surge so far — 23 new cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), including 15 Italian tourists — the government announced Wednesday that all passengers arriving in India would have to undergo thermal screening at international airports and sea-ports.
The total number of cases detected across the country has now risen to 29, including three in Kerala who were discharged last month.
Two days after a 45-year-old man from East Delhi tested positive, six of his relatives from Agra have also tested positive. They are all being treated at the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi.
In Jaipur, where a 69-year-old Italian tourist was found to have contracted the infection, his wife and 14 other members of his tour group as well as their Indian driver have tested positive.
While the 69-year-old man and his wife are being treated at Jaipur’s Sawai Man Singh (SMS) Hospital, the others were quarantined at the ITBP camp in Chhawla, in Delhi, from where they are reported to have been referred to Safdarjung Hospital.
In the evening, Paytm said in a statement that an employee who had just returned from a vacation in Italy had tested positive. The employee, a mid-level techie, is reported to have returned from Italy last week, and had joined work at the company’s Gurgaon office.
According to sources, the employee, who lives in West Delhi, developed symptoms including high fever. He has been admitted to Safdarjung Hospital. As a precautionary measure, Paytm has asked employees at all its offices in the National Capital Region — five in Noida and one in Gurgaon — to work from home while the workplaces are being sanitised.
In a statement, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said: “Third case in Jaipur, wife of the already confirmed Italian patient, has been confirmed for COVID-19. 14 Italians and one Indian, who were part of the team of the Jaipur COVID-19 confirmed case, are also initially confirmed positive for COVID-19. Six family members at Agra, who are family members of the COVID-19 confirmed case from Delhi, are confirmed for COVID-19. In addition, two cases with high viral load have been detected in Telangana.”
Multiple review meetings were held through the day, including an inter-ministerial meeting to review preparedness, chaired by P K Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.
“Two important changes since yesterday to further enhance our level of preparedness, namely introduction of universal screening at all international airports and sea-ports through use of thermal imagery equipment as well as mandatory filling of declaration forms of places visited by tourists and travellers returning from abroad, were noted by all concerned for operationalisation. Ministry of Home Affairs was tasked to work closely with state governments, including relevant district administration officials, to ensure compliance with screening protocols at Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) on our land borders,” the government said in a statement.
So far, only passengers arriving via flights from 12 countries — Italy, Iran, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia — had to undergo compulsory screening.
“Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, reviewed the preparedness of various Indian airports regarding COVID-19 and instructed universal screening of passengers before entering India. All incoming international passengers to India to be mandatorily screened by the APHOs,” the Airports Authority of India tweeted.
“It was difficult to identify people who are potentially infected by coronavirus since many of them arrive in India from affected countries via connecting flights,” said a senior government official, explaining the rationale behind expanding the mandatory screening to all international flights.
The Delhi patient, who had travelled to Italy, had returned to India on an Air India flight from Vienna, Austria, on February 25.
Almost 1,300 international flights arrive at airports across India every day. Health Ministry sources said 500 handheld thermal scanners are currently in use at 21 international airports across the country. Another 250 scanners are in stock and 300 more are being procured.
“We do not know exactly how many international travellers fly into the country every day. At Delhi airport, there are about 22,000; we were already screening about 5,000 who come from the 12 countries on the list. We will need to add another 16,000 to that now. In Mumbai, approximately 10,000 people fly in from foreign destinations every day. The major traffic is in these two cities and Hyderabad. We are procuring scanners that will be provided as per the airports’ requests, we will also supply them with trained manpower,” said a senior health ministry official.
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan also held a review meeting with Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain in view of the first positive case in the capital. So far, 66 people who had contact with that patient have been traced.
Speaking to reporters, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said: “The government is proactively engaged to tackle the situation. The Prime Minister himself is monitoring the situation… There was only one virology laboratory (conducting tests for coronavirus) in Pune. Now, we have already set up 15, and we are going to establish another 19 in a few days. We have issued the necessary travel advisory to guide Indian passengers and those coming from abroad… The main job is to create awareness in society.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Experts across the world have advised to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. Hence, this year I have decided not to participate in any Holi Milan programme.”
Rashtrapati Bhavan has also cancelled Holi celebrations.
Vardhan too urged people to “avoid large Holi gatherings as much as possible”, but said there is no reason for children to stay away from schools or for people to avoid public transport. All government departments and ministries have been asked to consult the Health Ministry before organising conferences and international meetings.
The government also plans to set up testing facilities in Iran so that Indians there can be tested. An estimated 1,200 Indians, mostly students and pilgrims, are in Iran currently.
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