Two village panchayats in Kerala’s Idukki district have been turned into containment zones and a mass contact-tracing exercise is on after a bakery-owner tested positive as part of the sentinel surveillance mechanism of the state’s health department. Random testing as part of sentinel surveillance is being carried out among high-risk categories, such as shopkeepers, police officers, health workers and journalists, to detect silent community transmission of the novel coronavirus.
On May 14, a 39-year-old bakery-owner at Puttadi in Vandenmedu panchayat tested positive for the virus after his samples were tested randomly on May 11. He was asymptomatic. After the test results came in, he was admitted to the taluk hospital in Thodupuzha and his family members consisting of his wife and two children placed under home quarantine. Follow coronavirus live updates
Since the bakery is believed to have been visited by hundreds of people over the past week, local health workers are scouring for those in the area who have had primary contact with the bakery owner based on high-risk and low-risk parameters. Helpline numbers of the district health department have been published on social media, asking people to come forward if they have visited the bakery in recent days.
Idukki district medical officer N Priya told The Indian Express, “We have prepared a contact list of 250-300 people. Most of these people are those in the locality of the bakery in Vandenmedu panchayat. His actual residence is in Karunapuram panchayat where very few people have had primary contact with him. None of those on the primary contact list have any symptoms so far.”
The district also plans to ramp up sentinel surveillance testing from next week onwards. At present, only 30 samples are sent for testing per week. On Saturday, the district administration declared Vandanmedu and Karunapuram panchayats as sensitive hotspots where all lockdown regulations will apply.
Apart from his routine travel between his residence and the bakery, the 39-year-old had also visited two bakeries in Kattappana, a major town 16 km away, to pick up supplies. Health officials in Kattappana have been informed and a contact-tracing exercise has been initiated there as well.
So far, authorities haven’t been able to conclude how the 39-year-old contracted the infection. But they have some theories. Since Idukki is a district neighbouring Tamil Nadu and a lot of truck drivers from that state come through the forest check-post at Kumily carrying essential supplies, the bakery-owner may have had contact with those persons. With infection case-loads surging in Tamil Nadu, the Kerala health department has intensified focus on border districts like Idukki in the last few weeks.
The DMO said, “We have reports that local truck drivers and those from TN have had tea from the bakery. That’s the possibility before us right now as the source of infection.”
Another prime concern among officials is the extent of exposure the bakery-owner had with locals, even after his samples were taken for testing. Since there are no official instructions on quarantining those tested under sentinel surveillance, the bakery owner continued to operate his shop from May 11 till the afternoon of May 14 when the results came in.
Meanwhile, lists of local truck drivers who operated in the area are being retrieved from the check-posts at Kumily and Kambammettu so that they could be brought under the surveillance net too.
A doctor in Vandanmedu panchayat, who has been part of the contact tracing efforts, said. “His was the only bakery that operated in the area for the last two weeks. So, a lot of people visited the shop. According to our estimates, the number of contacts could be around 500.”
Add to that, the increasing resistance from sections of the public to follow government directions. “Despite our orders, several shopkeepers in the area provide tea and other food items to the truck drivers inside by closing the front doors. In the last two days, we noticed two shops like that.”
Tony James, a ward-member in Vandanmedu panchayat, confirmed that all roads to the wards, enveloping Puttady, have been blocked, restricting vehicular movement to the area. Shops are sealed off and people are advised not to step outside their homes.
“We have decided to utilise our army of volunteers to supply essential items at doorsteps. We have intimated the Collector about the need for such items and medicines. The downside is that the people have been under the lockdown for a long time now and are getting restless. Some of them are even getting violent.”