Maharashtra records sudden jump in Covid-19 cases, triggers panic
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s office on Sunday morning announced he will address the state that evening at 7pm. As soon as the message was aired on television, tweets, Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages across Mumbai, Pune, and other cities wondered whether another lockdown was in the offing amid what has been unofficially been referred to as the second wave of Covid-19.
From February 10, Maharashtra, which was until then witnessing a flattening of both new and active cases, began recording a jump in infections. From February 1 to 9, Maharashtra recorded an average of 2,489 cases a day. In the same period, active cases fell from 43,701 to 34,640. Due to faster recovery numbers, active cases fell to 30,265 on February 11.
But from February 10, the number of infections has only risen. Since then, until February 22, Maharashtra has added 59,937 new cases, averaging 4,610 cases daily. Active cases have risen to 53,113. As many as 22,848 cases have been reported in 11 days.
In terms of the proportion of deaths, too, Maharashtra is the worst-hit in the country. On Friday, 44 of India’s 100 Covid-19 deaths (44%) were in Maharashtra. Overall, of the 144,329 deaths recorded in India till February 22, Maharashtra accounts for 53,113 or 36.8%.
The government and the local bodies have been alarmed at the rise, most of which has been reported in Vidarbha, Pune, and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which includes Thane district, one of the largest in India.
What has led to the spike?
Health department officials say that they have been unable to pinpoint the exact reasons for the sudden surge. Some of them attribute it to laxity in Covid-appropriate behaviour, weather, a possible mutation of the virus in the Vidarbha region, local elections, and social events such as weddings that were put on hold in 2020.
The health department has sent over 350 random samples from the worst-affected districts for genome sequencing to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune to “better understand if there was a mutation of the virus.”
Earlier this month, a genome sequencing study by the BJ Medical College in Pune suggested an E484K in one sample from Amravati and N440K mutation in another from Yavatmal. The state government on February 19 denied the presence of any foreign mutants in Amravati, Yavatmal and Pune districts.
As per the state health department data, Akola’s active cases have more than doubled between February 15 and 22 from 809 to 1,981. Amravati’s active cases rose from 3,090 on February 15 to 5,404 on February 22.
Mumbai, too, reported a jump of 11.42% in active cases between February 10 (5,372) and February 22 (5,986). Mumbai’s overall caseload is now 319,889, the highest for any city in the country, except if you count Delhi as a city and not a state where the caseload on February 22 was 638,028.
Maharashtra’s state surveillance officer, Pradeep Awate, said besides faster transmission and cold weather that is conducive for the increase in viral activity, laxity and increased movement of people could have led to the spike in cases. “There have been functions, get-togethers, weddings with 500-1000 attendees. In January, we had elections to over 14,000 Gram Panchayats, where the turnout was 80%. The movement of people has increased, coupled with a lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour. This has led to an increase,” he said.
Awate added that the reports that there was mutation were unfounded. “The medical college where the samples were sent was unauthorised. Meanwhile, we are still studying the sequencing. Over 350 samples from Amravati, Akola, Yavatmal, Pune, etc, have been sent to NIV in Pune,” he said.
Rahul Pandit, a member of the state task force, echoed Awate’s assessment. He added this is just a “blip” in the first wave, which can be brought under control if protocols are strictly followed.
“There are a complex set of things that triggered this spike,” he said. “I do not think this is a second wave. This is a blip in the first wave, which had never really gone away. If we go back to our Covid-appropriate behaviour and with micro-geographic lockdowns, I think we will see the cases come down in a two-week period. But this should happen in the true spirit. If this is not followed, then this can turn really ugly,” Pandit warned.
He said cities such as Amravati, Yavatmal, Akola, etc, had not seen viral activity as much as the state had seen in the earlier part of the outbreak. Amravati (both the city and district) has never seen such a rise during the entire pandemic. Even when the cases peaked in the state in September, the situation in the district was not like it is today.
On September 11, when the state reported the highest cases--24,886--the district had 545. On February 20, 21 and 22, it reported 1,055, 926 and 649 cases. The positivity rate of the district is 29.8.%.
In regions such as Vidarbha bordering Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, social activities like weddings put on hold for almost a year due to Covid restrictions have been blamed for the spike.
“With the relaxation of the lockdown and start of the vaccination, people started behaving carelessly,” said Suresh Asole, district health officer, Akola. “People have been attending wedding and family functions without wearing masks. This may have contributed to spreading the virus to a large population. Along with that, we have increased the daily testing. So, with more testing, the daily count of new Covid-19 cases would increase.”
Similarly, in the MMR, which includes Mumbai and six neighbouring cities, and Pune district, the cases have surged over the last few days. MMR reported a jump of 45.29% in its active caseload between February 15 and 22. The Thane district, which has five municipal corporations and a substantial rural belt, has seen an increase in active cases by 26.5% during the same period.
Authorities said cases have gone up after local train services were opened to the general public from February 1. Over three million people have been travelling daily on the trains that run across Mumbai and parts of MMR.
Pune district saw a 52% rise in active cases.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) took stock of its preparedness on Monday, four days after it issued a new set of strict guidelines for the city. It warned cases will be filed against those breaking home quarantine rules. BMC said new containment zones will be created in buildings with over five Covid-19 cases. It will allow the police to penalise people for not wearing masks in public places.
Additional municipal commissioner Suresh Kakani said, “The availability of beds is at 75% now. We took stock of laboratories, jumbo Covid facilities, private hospitals and have decided to maintain the preparedness that was there in September... The laboratories have been directed to turn in reports within 24 hours. They must ensure proper contact details with PIN code mentioned so that tracing patient does not take more time.”
Pandit said the protocol to contain the rise in cases is no different for Mumbai and MMR than the rest of the states. “It is no different than what we are doing in other places. We have controlled it once and we can do it now. Masking and micro containment zones will help tremendously,” he said.
The overall mortality rate in the state has decreased from 2.56% on January 1 to 2.47% on February 21. Also, districts like Pune, Amravati, Yavatmal and Akola that are recording the highest positivity rate in the state have also witnessed a decrease in mortality during the same period.
“Since the start of February, the state-wide testing has been increased. With the rise in testing, it is accepted that the new Covid-19 cases would also increase. So, there is nothing to be scared of,” said Shashank Joshi, member of the state Covid-19 task force.
He said in Amravati, the mutation can be a reason for the faster spread of the virus. “But so far, we have not seen any mutation in Mumbai or Pune. However, samples have been sent for analysis so. We have to wait for that.”
Unlike the beginning of the pandemic, the severity of infection among patients has gone down. “Though recently the number of admissions has increased, we are not witnessing many deaths,” said St George’s Hospital medical superintendent Akash Khobragade.