Thiruvananthapuram: For the first time since he began his by now customary COVID-19 press briefing, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has let go off his restraint and virtually declared victory in the state's fight against the pandemic. "We have been able to contain the spread of the virus in a very big way," the Chief Minister said on Friday.
The day's status perhaps had emboldened him. From 24 and 21 in the last two days, confirmed cases in Kerala dropped to nine. But what would have given the Chief Minister a greater sense of achievement is the recovery of 14 COVID-19 patients, the highest number to test negative in a single day.
The Chief Minister might have also been elated by the discharge of Thomas (93) and Mariamma (86), the country's oldest COVID-19 patients to recover.
Pinarayi compared Kerala's situation with New York, in the United States. He said in New York the first COVID-19 case was reported on March 1, and now it has 92,389 confirmed cases and over 2,000 deaths. "Our first case was reported on January 30, in a student from China's Wuhan. But we still have only 295 confirmed cases," the chief minister said.
Extensive testing in the offing
Pinarayi Vijayan also hinted at a shift in strategy. Testing, which is now done in small daily doses of 400-500 samples, will be made more extensive. Till date, Kerala has done the testing of just 9,136 samples though nearly 1.7 lakh people are under observation.
Testing would be widened in two ways. One, the rigorous conditions set for the usual and more precise but time-consuming PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing will be eased.
As it is, a person's throat swabs would be taken for testing only if he showed most of the COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, breathing trouble and diarrhoea. Now, the chief minister said samples would be taken for testing if a person exhibits even two of these symptoms.
The second way is to introduce rapid testing in a big way. Already 1,000 testing kits have arrived, and 2,000 more are on their way. The kits have arrived at the initiative of Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor who had used his MP funds to pay for them.
"Our strategy would be to prevent community spread at any cost," the chief minister said. Another set would soon arrive from Hong Kong.
Rapid testing would be done on risk groups like health workers, in areas where viral pneumonia or other viral fever cases are being reported in large numbers, and also in places like Pothencode (in Thiruvananthapuram) where community transmission is suspected.
Kasaragod fumes unabated
Kasaragod, however, continues to fester. Of the nine new cases, seven were reported from the district, taking the total confirmed cases in the district to 136. One case each has been reported from Kannur and Thrissur. The confirmed case in Thrissur is a man who had returned from the Tablighi Jamaat, taking the total number of positive cases in Kerala from the Muslim meet to three.
The chief minister, but, said the biggest relief was the recovery of 14 COVID-19 patients; Kannur-5, Kasaragod-3, Idukki-2, Kozhikode-2 (one is from Kasaragod), Pathanamthitta-1, and Kottayam-1.
A major milestone in Kerala's fight against COVID-19 was crossed on Friday when an old couple - Thomas (93) and Mariamma (88) who had turned negative three days before - were discharged from Kottayam Medical College. They are the oldest to survive COVID-19 in the country.
The virus infection along with severe co-morbidities had made their survival a distant possibility. The old couple tested positive for novel coronavirus on March 8. They were infected by their son and family who had returned from Italy on February 29.
Though they were initially admitted to the Pathanamthitta General Hospital, the couple were shifted to Kottayam Medical College on March 9. Apart from age-related ailments, they had diabetes, urinary tract infection and hypertension. Thomas had also suffered a massive cardiac arrest while at the ICU.
Their recovery is seen as rare, a near miracle, and is a huge triumph for Kerala's health machinery.
Nurse and the politician
Leaving the hospital along with the old couple, and fully cured, is staff nurse Reshma Mohandas. It was Reshma who took care of the couple and was later found to be infected. She had expressed her willingness to return after the mandated 14-day quarantine at her home.
The politician in Idukki, whose restless travels all over the state during March had caused a scare, was also among the people who were discharged from the hospital on Friday. He reportedly had contacts with over 1000 people. However, even his close relatives have now tested negative. The chief minister had even said the man's behaviour was unbecoming of a public person. On Friday, Pinarayi said he was happy the man had turned negative.
What happens when lockdown lifts
As directed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kerala formed a 17-member 'task force' under former chief secretary K M Abraham to recommend how the lockdown could be lifted in a graded manner.
The other members are: Adoor Goplakrishnan, Malayala Manorama chief editor Mammen Mathew, Mathrubhumi managing director M V Shreyams Kumar, Bishop Mar Mathew Arackal, Aruna Sundararaj IAS, former DGP Jacob Punnoose, B Raman Pillai, former bureaucrat Rajeev Sadanandan, Plannkng Board member and neurosurgeon Dr B Ekbal, Dr Fazal Gafoor, Dr M V Pillai, Murali Thummarakkudi, Plannign Board member Mridul Eapen, economist Irudaya Rajan, Dr Khadeeja Mumtaz and P A Kumar.
The chief minister conceded that the post-lockdown period would be especially worrisome for Kerala. "We have people all over the world, especially in high-risk countries. We cannot stop them from returning home once the lockdown is over but we will talk with experts and find a way to prevent them from further fuelling the infection," Pinarayi said.
1.7 lakh under observation
On Thursday, 1,69,997 persons were under observation in Kerala, up from 1,65,934 the previous day. Of this, 1,69,291 or over 99 per cent of those under surveillance were home-quarantined. The remaining 706 are admitted in designated isolation facilities.
Till now, 9,139 samples had been sent for testing of which 8,126 had turned negative.