Alarm over new Covid-19 cases in Delhi; Centre may step in
Covid-cases in Delhi surged to a new high on Friday even as a concerned home ministry has called for a meeting on Monday to discuss the issue.
For the fourth day in a row, new Covid-19 infections in Delhi on Friday set yet another single-day record even as the positivity rate continued to rise at alarming levels with a tenth of all tests in the past 24 hours returning positive results, highlighting what is clearly the third and worst wave yet of the outbreak in the Capital.
Worried about the continuous spike in Delhi’s infections during the ongoing festive season, and at the start of winter, the Union home ministry has called a special review meeting with Delhi government officials on Monday to check the spiralling rate of Covid-19 cases in the Capital, people familiar with the matter told HT.
The meeting, chaired by Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla, will take stock of the situation and suggest concrete steps to the Delhi government to address the issue. Apart from Bhalla, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan, Niti Aayog member Dr VK Paul, and other senior central officials will interact with Delhi health officials, the people cited above added.
This will be the second intervention by the Centre into rising Covid cases in Delhi. In July, Union home minister Amit Shah held a round of meetings with Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and other officials after which, testing, contact tracing and sero-surveillance were ramped up in Delhi with the two governments working in coordination.
Delhi government spokespersons did not respond to messages and calls seeking comment on the matter.
Cases in Delhi have risen to unprecedented highs in the past week. With 5,891 new cases on Friday, Delhi set a new record for the highest single-day new infections for the fourth day in a row, pushing the total number of cases to 381,644.
On average, Delhi has reported 4,749 cases every day in the past week, which means that the current trajectory is far above the peak of what is considered the second wave (4,174 average cases reported for week ending September 17). In contrast, cases in the rest of the country have steadily declined through at least the past month, making Delhi one of the only two regions (besides West Bengal) currently witnessing a peak.
What is alarming experts, though, is the rise in the Union territory’s positivity rate. The seven-day average of positivity rate has risen more than 3.5 percentage points in just three weeks – from 5.3% for the week ending October 8 to 8.8% on Thursday.
Experts stressed the need for the Delhi government to further increase testing and said that a fast-rising positivity rate is an indicator that a region is not testing adequately. “Delhi is witnessing a severe spike in cases for the third time. A specific study should be conducted in the city at this juncture. There are also studies that suggest that air pollution contributes to transmission of the virus. That makes the situation in Delhi much worse. The number of tests being conducted needs to be further scaled up,” said Dr Jacob John, former head of clinical virology department at Christian Medical College in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore.
Pollution levels in Delhi have been worsening recently with the air quality index hovering dangerously close to the ‘severe’ zone in the past 10 days. Many international research papers have found that air pollution worsens Covid-19 mortality rates. A study published on Tuesday in the journal Cardiovascular Research had said that around 17% of Covid-19 deaths in India could be linked to long-term exposure to air pollution, higher than the 15% seen on average across the world. A study from the Harvard University has also shown that with every 1 μg increase in PM2.5 long term exposure, Covid-19 mortality went up by 8%.
HT reported on Monday that the data showed the tests need to be scaled up now irrespective of the daily volume since the positivity rate is well over the acceptable 5%-7% level, and rising.
Many European nations, such as Germany and France, which are seeing a second wave of cases, have all announced restrictions over the past week, especially keeping in mind the festive season. The Delhi government, however, ruled out the possibility of re-imposing any form of restrictions that were put in place during the lockdown.
“We have seen a lockdown. But that has not been able to stop transmission of the virus. People will have to strictly adhere to social distancing and always wear masks. People should consider wearing masks as a vaccine until real Covid-19 vaccines are available for the masses. Masks can save us to a large extent from the winter pollution too,” Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain said on Friday.
On Thursday, Jain attributed the surge in cases to the festive season and said that a “change” in the administration’s contact tracing strategy was helping identify more patients. “We have changed our strategy by strengthening our contact tracing system now. This is why the positivity rate is increasing. So, now we are trying to test 5-7 contacts per Covid case to break the cycle of infection.”
Even at this rate, however, Delhi’s contact tracing target would remain considerably short of what experts say is ideal. At the Union ministry’s health briefing on Tuesday, Dr Paul said that “contact tracing can only be considered successful if at least 10 contacts” of every positive case are traced and tested by the local governments.
Experts said the rise in cases is a reflection of the fact that with the festive season and winter here, people are not taking Covid-specific precautions.
“Many people are venturing outdoors and participating in gatherings in the light of the festive season. And they are clearly not taking adequate safety measures. That is definitely leading to increased transmission of the virus. This demands innovative awareness campaigns that contribute to behavioural change. Also, the winter months witness more respiratory illnesses and Covid-19 is one. That is contributing to the numbers too,” said Dr Jugal Kishore, head of community medicines department in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital.
(With inputs from Abhishek Dey)