ON April 27, the owner of a hairdressing salon near Koyambedu market — a wholesale vegetable and fruit market in Chennai — was among the first Covid-19 positive cases in the area. Since then, over 3,000 cases have been reported from the market. In fact, over 35 per cent of the cases reported in Tamil Nadu so far have been traced to Koyambedu market. Till Wednesday, the state’s total case count was 9,227, of which 4,089 were linked to arrivals from other countries and states, and another 1,365 were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in March. Most of the remaining cases have been traced to the Koyambedu market cluster.
Some regions in Andhra Pradesh which border Tamil Nadu have also reported cases linked to Koyambedu, with many migrants who work in the market returning to their home state in the last week of April.
Chennai, which had 906 cases on April 30 (mostly linked to the Tablighi cluster), touched 5,262 cases on Wednesday.
A senior public health official said the Koyambedu market cluster “exploded” in such a way that “not only Chennai, but several other districts such as Ariyalur and Perambalur where the case count was in single digits till the last week of April, were also affected.”
In the period between April 30 and May 12, Ariyalur, a rural district south of Chennai, saw a spike from 7 cases to 344 cases; Perambalur saw a jump from 9 to 192 — all linked to workers returning from Koyambedu.
In the same period, two neighbouring districts of Chennai city region, Chengalpattu and Tiruvallur, saw their case count jump from 78 to 391, and 55 to 467, respectively.
Health department officials who are engaged in the massive contact tracing exercise said most of them were found to have links to Koyambedu market — vendors, drivers, workers and those who visited the market on a daily basis, and their secondary contacts.
“The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) should have taken measures in March itself. It was too late when they finally decided to evict retail vendors from the market and shifted all fruit and flower vendors to another location (on April 28). Hundreds of people who suddenly lost their jobs were forced to travel to their homes in different towns and villages. Nobody assumed that hundreds of them would be Covid-19 carriers,” said a senior health official.
He said the massive contact tracing of 7,500-odd people in different districts including Chennai, and aggressive testing of all immediate contacts, led to a sudden spike in the case count.
The daily case count in Ariyalur, Cuddalore and Perambalur districts was in single digits till early May; these regions have seen a surge over the past week. In Chennai, the doubling time was down to five days on Monday — it is 6 days in the rest of the state, while the national average is 12.6 days.
Of the 509 new cases reported across the state in the last 24 hours, 380 were from Chennai. The state’s death rate remains low, at .69% (the national average is 3.25%) with 64 deaths till Wednesday.
“The number of deaths increases when the infection starts reflecting on the vulnerable population. We should be preparing for that as well. If it is a reality that we should be learning to live with the virus, it is also important that we need to have more hand-washing facilities everywhere.” said K Kolandaswamy, who retired from the post of director of public health on April 30.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Wednesday said there was no need to panic. Underlining the state’s death rate, discharge rate (27 per cent) and increased testing, he said the pandemic was under control. Quoting experts, he said the numbers may “go up” further before the state sees a downward curve.
Addressing a meeting of senior officials, he blamed the vendors of Koyambedu market for the outbreak. He said they had refused to cooperate with the government’s plan to shift them to a new site, and also did not follow the protocol on social distancing and wearing masks.
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