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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Marginal dip in Covid caseload in Kerala, but spectre of risk looms large, say officials

Kerala still continues to have the highest active caseload in the country, despite the state home to just 2.76% of India's population.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: February 17, 2021 9:07:29 pm
coronavirus kerala, active corona cases kerala, sero surveillance icmr, kerala covid drop, RT PCR testing kerala, kerala covid restrictions, kerala coronavirus outbreak, coronavirus new variant, covid mutation, Indian Express NewsThermal scanning at a school in Palakkad. (PTI)

There has been a marginal decline in the active Covid-19 caseload in Kerala in the last three weeks with recoveries exceeding new infections on most days. Higher testing by the government since the last week of January, after being spurred to do so both by local experts and the Centre, has led to the detection of hidden asymptomatic cases and thus limiting the spread of the infection to an extent.

The active caseload, which stood at 72,891 on January 24, has come down to 60,761 as of Tuesday.

On Tuesday, when 74,352 samples were tested, 4937 fresh cases were reported, indicating a positivity rate of 6.64%. The average positivity rate in the state in the last 7 days has been 7.24%.

Kerala still continues to have the highest active caseload in the country, despite the state home to just 2.76% of India’s population.

However, the mortality rate, which the state government claims is the sole determining factor of the severity of the pandemic, at 0.4% is still one of the lowest in the country. The number of people who died as a result of Covid-19 in the state is 3998, according to government figures. Kerala is the second state after Maharashtra in the country to breach the 1 million mark of total cases.

As part of intensifying its measures on containing the pandemic, the health department has made it mandatory for all symptomatic persons testing negative on rapid antigen to be subjected to RT-PCR test at the same time. This will help the department detect patients with ILI and SARI symptoms who would be vulnerable to Covid-19 in any case.

At the same time, even though the chief minister spoke of conducting 75% of daily testing through RT-PCR, the health department hasn’t been able to do it. Figures from Tuesday’s bulletin showed a whopping 63% of the samples tested were through rapid antigen kits which are known to produce quick results and therefore prone to deliver false negatives.

Dr Mathews Numpeli, district programme manager of the national health mission in Ernakulam district, said, “For immediate screening, rapid antigen is the best test we have. That’s why, we have told all hospitals to conduct antigen tests first for those coming with symptoms. Subsequently, they will be tested through RT-PCR as well. We have hiked number of RT-PCR samples to more than 3000 per day now depending on the district’s capacity.”

Ernakulam, the financial hub of the state and home to an airport and a seaport, has 9872 people currently under treatment — the most in the state. Over 80% of them are under home-isolation and the rest admitted to first-line and second-line treatment centers, government and private hospitals.

Numpeli added, “The rate of hospitalisation is coming down. We have a centralised system of shifting and monitoring patients. When we look at the figures, the number of patients with breathlessness issues has reduced by nearly half from two weeks ago.”

However, health officials unequivocally said that there’s been a general lowering of guard and alertness among the public with respect to following protocols. The disease certainly hasn’t gone away and a breakdown in following basic guidelines could potentially shoot up cases once again, they argue.

A Anithakumari, district medical officer in Alappuzha, said, “Weddings and other functions are taking place by violating rules blatantly. Even political parties are holding rallies. It’s a big problem. I have brought it to the attention of the district collector seeking greater enforcement. We are prepared for all eventualities.”

It’s true. Ahead of Assembly elections later this summer, all political coalitions have stepped up campaigning in order to reach out to the people by holding yatras that are conducted in plain violation of Covid-19 rules.

The ‘Aiswarya Kerala’ yatra led by Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala has already made it through half the state, having begun from Kasaragod in the North earlier this month. At most meetings, workers and leaders are seen without masks and not adhering to physical distancing. The yatras led by CPM acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan and CPI leader Binoy Vishwam lack serious measures to control crowds. BJP state president K Surendran is also scheduled to hold a yatra from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram beginning Feb 21. Even the adalats held by the government at the district level with the aim of cutting bureaucratic red-tape and solve basic problems of the people were packed with crowds.

In the absence of serious measures to control crowds during such functions, a repeat of the surge in infections following the local body elections in December could take place, fear officials.

“I feel we will be at risk till the end of March. Right now, the number of cases are static. There’s no perceptible rise or a significant decline. A lot of political rallies have begun and gradually the state is getting into election mode,” said Dr AV Ramdas, district medical officer in Kasaragod, which has the lowest number of active cases in the state.

“When we look at the sero-surveillance study in Kerala, only about 12% of the population are seen to have contracted the disease. That means, a large share of the public have still not gotten it. That’s why I said there’s a general risk in the state,” he indicated.

The third round of sero surveillance conducted by ICMR in mid-December in three districts of Kerala had put the sero-positivity rate at 11.6%, compared to the national average of 21%. Health officials in the state had claimed it showed the strength of the containment measures initiated at the grassroot level.

The government is already keeping a close eye on the people returning to the state from the UK and potentially carrying the highly-transmissible and mutated variant of the virus. Out of the 84 people who travelled from the UK and tested positive for Covid-19, only 10 were found to be infected with the mutated variant so far.

With Brazil and South African variants also being reported in India in recent days, the health department is expected to issue new protocols and preventive measures.

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