New Delhi: Striking a positive note on the COVID-19 situation in India, the Centre on Thursday said it has been able to slow down the infection rate to flatten the curve and minimise the spread during the period of the national lockdown which has entered the 30th day.
In its latest update, the union health ministry put the total number of cases at 21,700 after the infections recorded a jump of nearly 1,250 in the last 24 hours and the death toll at 686.
The ministry also said 4,325 people have so far recovered from the infection, which is about 20 per cent of the total cases, since the first case was detected in Kerala on January 30.
According to a PTI tally based on reports from the states, the total number of cases was 22,951 and there were 721 fatalities.
Lav Agarwal, a Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry, said no new COVID-19 cases has been reported from 78 districts in the last 14 days.
As the number of coronavirus cases inches towards 23,000, top officials of the union government and the Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR) said the situation is "currently stable" and the growth of the infections has been more or less linear and not exponential, adding the testing has also been ramped up consistently though it was not enough.
The lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in force since March 25 in a bid to halt the spread of the pandemic. It was extended on April 15 for another 19 days till May 3.
In another positive development, the officials said that despite a 24-fold increase in testing, the percentage of positive cases is not rising. The percentage of positive cases as a ratio of testing is more or less the same as that a month ago.
Signs of flattening curve
Responding to a question over the prospects of India reaching the peak infection rate by May 3, ICMR Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava said," the situation is currently going stable and you can even say that we have been able to flatten the curve. However, it is difficult to say if the peak will come. In epidemiology, the idea of slowing the spread of virus so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time is known as flattening the curve.
"During the 30 days of lockdown, we have been able to cut transmission, minimize spread and increase the doubling days of COVID-19. We have been able to consistently ramp up our testing and utilise our time preparing for the future in case the virus spreads further," Environment Secretary C K Mishra, the chairman of Empowered Group Two, told a daily media briefing on the COVID-19 situation in the country.
The growth of COVID-19 cases has been more or less linear, not exponential; this indicates that the strategies we adopted have succeeded in containing the infection to a particular level. Post-imposition of lockdown, while the number of new positive cases has increased by 16 times, testing increased by 24 times," Mishra said in his presentation.
Mishra said one crucial weapon the government employed during the 30-day lockdown period is RT-PCR test to ascertain if one has contracted the disease or not. RT-PCR, which is a nose and throat swab test, still remains the gold standard for COVID-19 testing.
As on March 23, nearly 15,000 tests were done across the country and by April 22 more than 5 lakh tests were conducted, which is about "33 times in 30 days", he said, adding, "But we are conscious of the fact that this is not enough and we have to continuously ramp up testing in the country and we will do that."
Mishra also said India has done better than a majority of developed countries with respect to the percentage of test cases yielding positive results.
"We need to evolve our strategy based on the current position... We seem to be doing well so far with our strategy which is intensely focused on areas where we see a lot of positivity and action happening. Our testing strategy has been focused, targeted and continues to expand," he said.
Of the 11 empowered groups formed to suggest measures to ramp up healthcare, put the economy back on track and reduce misery of people once the lockdown is lifted, Mishra is the chairman of Empowered Group Two tasked with coordinating availability of hospitals, isolation and quarantine facilities, disease surveillance, testing and critical care training.
Mishra also said that in the last one month, the number of dedicated hospitals for treating coronavirus patients has been increased 3.5 times and the number of isolation beds rose by 3.6 times.
Giving a rough comparison of testing figures with other countries in his presentation, Mishra said the US had done 5 lakh tests on March 26 and had found 80,000 cases to be positive, Italy had crossed the mark on March 31 and 1 lakh were found positive, the UK reached the stage on April 20 and found 1,20,000 positive cases while Turkey had done 5 lakh tests on April 16 and 80,000 were found to be infected.
"We are today at half-million mark, India had conducted around 5 Lakh tests as on April 22 and had around 20,000 cases.
"So if we do a worldwide comparison, we seem to be doing well so far with our strategy which is intensely focused on areas where we see a lot of positivity and action happening, he noted.
"Of course there are other countries like South Korea which has done better than this. Our testing strategy has been focused, targeted and continues to expand.
Talking about the preparedness in terms of infrastructure, the official said the number of dedicated COVID hospitals has increased 3.5 times since last month and the number of isolation beds has increased by 3.6 times during the same period. These numbers are increasing continuously.
"Our first goal is to ensure lesser that number of people need to reach hospital," he said, highlighting the importance of social distancing and taking care of the vulnerable which includes the elderly and those with co-morbidities.
About 3,773 dedicated COVID hospitals, health centres and care centres with capacity of 1,94,026 isolation beds, 24,644 ICU beds and 12,371 ventilators have been readied across the country. "This is augmented everyday," he said.
"So we want to create a structure where we test most people, treat them according to the need and then ensure we are able to cure them and save lives," Mishra asserted.