World witnessing 4th Covid surge: Centre cautions people against lowering guard

People shop at a crowded market ahead of Christmas, during the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in New Delhi, December 23, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

New Delhi: Noting the world is witnessing a fourth surge in Covid cases, the government on Friday cautioned people against lowering the guard, particularly during year-end festivities, even as it underlined that infection due to Omicron does not necessarily lead to severe symptomatic disease.

Addressing a joint press conference, ICMR Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava said Delta continues to be the predominant strain in India, including in the recently identified clusters.

"Therefore, we need to continue with the same strategy of following Covid-appropriate behaviour and ramping up vaccination," he said.

Asserting the Omicron variant of coronavirus does not necessarily lead to severe symptomatic clinical disease, Bhargava said in India, about a third of all the detected cases were mildly symptomatic, and the rest were asymptomatic.

"I want to emphasize that the treatment for Omicron-infected symptomatic individuals remains the same. It does not change from that for Delta, Alpha or the Beta variant," the ICMR DG said.

At the press conference, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan had a word of caution. "The world is witnessing the fourth surge of COVID-19 cases and the overall positivity is 6.1 per cent. Therefore, we have to be on guard and we can't afford to slacken," he said.

Explaining the Covid trend, including that of all its variants in different continents, Bhushan said that while Europe, North America and Africa were seeing an increase in infection week-on-week since November 26, Asia is still witnessing a decline in cases.

In India, the number of daily cases has been below 10,000 for the last four weeks. "While these numbers are low, we must be vigilant and keep up the guard," the Union health secretary said.

He said India has seen two surges in cases -- one in September 2020 and another one in May this year. Even as the country's overall cases and deaths are on the decline currently, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Karnataka and Mizoram are still reporting a very high number of infections, Bhushan said.

The very high case positivity in Kerala (6.1 per cent) and Mizoram (8.2 per cent) is a cause of concern, he observed.

In 20 districts, including nine in Kerala and eight in Mizoram, the weekly case positivity rate is between five and 10 per cent, and in two districts it is over 10 per cent.

"So, these 22 districts are a cause of concern for us. We are constantly in consultation with the states while central teams are visiting there to give technical support," Bhushan said.

Of the 358 cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus reported in India so far, 183 were analysed and it was found that 87 of them were fully vaccinated with three having received booster doses and 70 per cent were asymptomatic, the government said.

Two were partially vaccinated, seven people were unvaccinated while 16 were ineligible to receive vaccine doses in the country's national vaccination programme. The vaccination status of 73 is still unknown, Bhushan said.

He said, 121 cases had foreign travel history, while in 44 cases the infected had come in contact with foreign travellers and information about 18 people were still not available.

About the country's Covid preparedness, the health secretary said 18,10,083 isolation beds, 4,94,314 oxygen-supported beds, 1,39,300 ICU beds, 24,057 paediatric ICU beds, 64,796 paediatric non-ICU beds have been readied.

Also, 50 per cent of the amount under the Emergency Covid Response package (ECRP-II) have been released to states and Union Territories. Using the fund they are reading additional 96,913 oxygen-supported beds, 20,475 ICU beds and 9,574 paediatric non-ICU beds, he said.

On medical oxygen supply, Bhushan said, "Based on global and South Africa's experience, Omicron patients so far did not have additional requirement of oxygen. But we need to be proactive."

During the first wave of Covid infections in the country, the highest requirement of oxygen in a day was 1,000 MT which shot up to 10,000 MT during the second wave.

"There was a ten-fold increase in demand for medical oxygen. We were able to address that because of the collective efforts of Central and state governments and managed to supply 10,000 MT of medical oxygen. Today, we have created a capacity of 18,800 MT of medical oxygen daily," Bhushan said.

Quoting WHO's December 17 guidance, he said that Omicron has a significant growth advantage over Delta, spreading fast through communities, with a doubling time of between 1.5 and three days. Higher risk of transmission compared to Delta has been confirmed by household and contact studies in the United Kingdom, he said.

About vaccination coverage, the health secretary said 89 per cent of India's adult population have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine while 61 per cent have been fully vaccinated.

More than 140 crore doses have been administered so far.

In 19 states and Union Territories, first dose coverage was over 90 per cent while in Odisha, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Puducherry, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Jharkhand, Manipur, Punjab and Nagaland the coverage of first and second shots of vaccine was below the national average, he said, adding that it was a cause of concern.

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