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Coronavirus: Pooled testing planned in zero-case districts to get the real picture

Into the third week of the 21-day lockdown, there is realisation in the government that without adequate testing in the COVID-free districts, there is an inherent risk in taking any decision on the lockdown

Pool testing to be via RT-PCR, not serological tests. (PTI)

Pushing for increased testing, health authorities are all set to do pooled testing in some of the 436 districts of the country from where no case of COVID-19 has been reported. This will be done to get a “realistic estimation” of the spread of the disease, highly placed government sources said, and the areas will be selected based on information available.

Into the third week of the 21-day lockdown, there is realisation in the government that without adequate testing in the COVID-free districts, there is an inherent risk in taking any decision on the lockdown. That is why information from two databases — from Aarogya Setu app and surveillance — will be merged to choose the areas where pooled testing will be done among symptomatic people. These tests will be done through RT-PCR, the nucleic acid-based test that India has been using from the start, and not the recently introduced faster option of serological tests, sources said.

“We already have a couple of crore downloads of the Aarogya Setu app. The tracking data from that will give us an idea about the spread of the disease and then there is our own surveillance data. Merging these two databases, we will do pooled testing in select areas of some of the COVID-free districts to see if they really are free of the disease. The NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control) will choose the areas and once all tests are negative in symptomatic people, we can say with reasonable certainty that a particular geography is free of COVID,” a highly placed source said.

In this context, sources said, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting Tuesday on the Aarogya Setu app. It was attended, among others, by Cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Ram Vilas Paswan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Piyush Goyal and Prakash Javadekar.

Explained | Virus curve up, lockdown impact may take a while

During the meeting, a team of experts was learnt to have made a presentation on the app and its role in tracking the corona-positive cases and also alerting people to observe social distancing from places visited or populated by those who had tested positive.

The presentation indicated the push for the app from the highest levels of the government. “We will have to use technology not only for better tracking of positive cases but also helping unaffected population from getting close to positive cases. The data generated will also be used to better plan isolation and quarantine facilities in the event of the pandemic intensifying any further,” sources said.

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Till date, 131,271 tests have been done on symptomatic people with travel or contact history, medical professionals or asymptomatic contacts of confirmed cases. Of these, 13345 tests were done in the last 24 hours in 139 ICMR labs and 2266 cases in 69 private laboratories. India is making a concerted push to double testing every few days to reach 40,000 daily tests.

Meanwhile, as the number of positive cases in the country reached 5274 (411 recovered, 149 deaths), ICMR has maintained that the number of deaths is too few to come to the conclusion that the number of deaths is significantly more in Maharashtra. The state, which has reported 1018 cases, has seen 64 deaths so far — the highest in the country. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh with 13 deaths each are a distant second in terms of the number of deaths.

Fact Check: Tracking the virus curve

Responding to a query on the high death figures in Maharashtra, Dr R R Gangakhedkar, head of the department of epidemiology and infectious diseases at ICMR, said: “You cannot decide less or more deaths on the basis of absolute numbers. Currently, if you see, the number of deaths is so small that to say there have been significantly more deaths in Maharashtra is not correct. May be a chance event, you should see from that perspective. You cannot say it is significantly high.”

Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said: “Even a single death is an area of concern but you have to understand the risk factors such as comorbidity and age. Also, early identification is a major factor in the management of the disease. That is why community support is so crucial.”

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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