Alarmed at the massive spike in deaths in Malegaon in Nashik district, and amid concerns that many of those might have been undetected Covid-19 fatalities, last month the local and civic administration had decided to conduct a random testing of family members of all those who died after April 10.
A month later, however, officials say none of those tests came Covid positive. Nashik district administration officials maintain only 44 Covid deaths occurred in Malegaon in May. Yet, Malegaon Municipal Corporation records show there were 752 deaths last month, an increase of 157 per cent over the same month last year when the city registered 292 deaths.
Concerns about Malegaon’s high death rates began to surface in April, when the city registered 580 deaths, almost twice the number for the same month last year (277) and a 48 per cent jump over the number of deaths in March this year.
“We screened 50 families where a death had occurred. However, none of those who were screened showed any Covid-related symptoms,” said Pankaj Ashiya, an IAS officer appointed as the special monitoring officer to oversee the Malegaon Emergency Operation Centre established after the coronavirus outbreak in the city.
As of May 1, Malegaon had 274 coronavirus positive cases with 12 deaths. Nine had recovered. As of June 1, the total number of Covid cases had increased to 764 with 58 deaths. In May, 44 people are said to have died due to Covid-related illness.
“The number of daily deaths is high in May as well compared to last year. This is a spillover effect from April when private hospitals were shut cutting off access to healthcare for vulnerable sections. Also during Ramzan which fell during April-May, the number of OPDs that operate generally tends to reduce. However, post May 15 the daily deaths have reduced substantially and we are in control of the situation,” Ashiya said.
The administration has now identified around 14,500 residents over the age of 50 who will be monitored on a daily basis by a designated team of health volunteers. “We have identified 14,500 people over the age of 50 with co-morbidities. These are a vulnerable group who could be susceptible to infection. The idea is to monitor them on a daily basis through a dedicated team of volunteers who will check their health parameters free of cost for the next two months. By doing this we plan to insulate the vulnerable sections from possible infections,” Ashiya said.
As per data provided by the MMC, Malegaon presently has only 73 patients who are under treatment for Covid, with city doctors advancing various theories for the low numbers, including that Malegaon is already past the worst.
“One explanation for the spread slowing could be that the virulence of this strain of Covid is decreasing in the city. There could have been some build-up in immunity of people which has led to a large section getting cured and caused a slowdown in the transmission of the virus,” said Dr Saeed Farani, owner of the Faran Hospital, which was acquired by the state and converted into Malegaon’s lone Dedicated Covid Hospital.
While the administration claims that the numbers have been slowing, senior officials and doctors acknowledge off the record that the lack of cooperation from the local population has meant that testing and contract tracing efforts are not being conducted properly.
“The initial experience of the local population in quarantine centres and hospitals where the services were not up to the mark has created a lot of resentment. We are not getting the desired support from the local population and it has created problems in tracing infected people,” a senior state government official said.
As per MMC numbers, the city has so far contact-traced 9,000 high risk and low risk contacts. Officials claimed that on an average they were tracing six high risk contacts for every positive patient. However, the method of tracing leaves a lot to be desired.
A case in point is 60-year-old Shamim Bano Abdul Qayyum, who died on April 27. It was a suspected Covid death and her positive report came in only on April 29. The reports were, however, not shared with her family for a full week.
Her funeral was conducted in the normal way, with her sons helping to wrap the body and taking it for burial. The MMC approached the family nine days after the death to enquire if any of them had symptoms, in spite of having the test results two days after her death. The enquiries were cursory, say family members.
“They asked us if we had any fever and left. We were not asked to undergo any tests,” said Tauseef Qayyum, son of the victim. In spite of being a high risk contact and having been exposed to a positive patient, Qayyum and his family were neither tested nor asked to under quarantine.
MMC admits contact tracing is not being done effectively, but blame the people for providing wrong information. Officials said that while the numbers have reduced as of now, they are bracing themselves for a possible spike as monsoon arrives. As of June 8, Malegaon has 837 positives cases, of which 700 were completely cured and 73 are presently under treatment.
“We can say with some confidence that Malegaon has won the first phase of this battle with the virus. However, with monsoon we are bracing ourselves for a possible spike in numbers,” MMC Commissioner Trimbak Kasar said.
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