It is high time Kerala stopped taking comfort in the fact that the number of people infected through contacts continues to be low. On June 9, once again allowing the government to put up a brave face, only 10 of the 91 new cases had secured the virus through contact.
Since May 4, 1,597 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Kerala, and 1432 of them have come from outside, from abroad or other states. Only 165, or 10.33 per cent of the total, are local residents who got seeded by known or unknown sources.
This relatively low percentage has prompted the government to claim that Kerala has more or less managed to contain the virus within the imported cases, not allowing it to radiate outside to the community.
However, health experts argue that the 165 infected through contact is only an indicative number. It is unlike the number of returnees who had tested positive, which is factual and straightforward because the government keeps a close watch on people coming in.
But the number put out officially of people who have got infected through contact is nothing more than a representational figure on the top of a closed chest or a trunk to denote what is inside. A drawing of three mangoes on top of a large crate does not mean there are just three mangoes inside.
“The returnees we know, but many of the contact cases are identified by chance, especially when they are randomly picked for testing as part of sentinel surveillance. We will have no idea how they got the infection and would be in the dark about the people they would have possibly infected,” a top community medicine expert said.
In short, most of them would be just one small link in an infection chain that originated at some unknown point and is growing unseen, perhaps getting connected with other such stealthily elongating chains.
The ASHA worker in Chathannoor, the first positive health-worker picked up by sentinel surveillance, had infected five by the time she was declared positive. The backward linkage, how she got infected, is still a mystery.
Three days ago a nurse in Poruthassery Community Health Centre in Thrissur had tested positive. On Tuesday, her husband, a security staff of the archeology wing of Peruvanam temple.
“We thought she was infected by her son who had travelled to other parts of the state. But he has now tested negative. This leaves us utterly clueless about the origin of the nurse's infection, and there is panic,” said C K Vinod, the president of Cherpu panchayat where the nurse and family lives.
Cherpu is among the places declared as hotspots on Tuesday.
Public relations fiasco
Nearby in Adattu panchayat, the public relations officer of Vadakkekad Government hospital has tested positive on Tuesday. The man lives in Adattu but works in Vadakkekad, and therefore both the panchayats have been declared hotspots on Tuesday.
The Vadakkekkad hospital has been shut down but local leaders say the man could have got the infection while on duty at Thrissur's Sakthan Thampuran Private Bus Stand.
“He was tasked with monitoring the vegetable trucks that came to the market near the Shakthan stand. He returned to the hospital on June 2 and developed uneasiness three days later,” said Nabeel T K, the vice president of Vadakkekad grama panchayat. “Being a PRO, we hope he has not come in touch with the hospital staff or patients,” he said.
Puzzling is the case of a 60-year-old woman, a Palakkad native, who tested positive on Tuesday. Her son had sneaked in from Coimbatore in a vegetable truck on May 22. Lakkidi Perur panchayat authorities, when they knew of his presence, found the house unfit for room quarantine.
The entire family, including his mother, wife and children, were promptly shifted to institutional quarantine. None except the mother tested positive.
Now that her son was uninfected, her source of infection is a blank. A disturbing suspicion shared by a health official was that the quarantine centre could have been the source.
Shockingly, her results arrived four days after she left quarantine, allowing her time to mingle with others in the belief she was cured.
In their defence, local body authorities say the woman was allowed to go home only after she was in quarantine for 19 days. “When the results did not come and her 14-day period was up, we asked her to stay for five more days,” said Deepa Narayanan, Lakkidi Perur panchayat president.
Now, the panchayat is busy shifting the other members back to institutional quarantine.
Infection of a hospital clerk
Such a delay in test results is worrying Palakkad's Cherpulassery municipality, too. A clerk and cleaning staff of Cherpulassery Community Health Centre, women 34 and 45 years old, have tested positive on Tuesday. But their samples were taken as part of sentinel surveillance last Tuesday (June 2).
“Both of them were at the hospital even today. Both have no symptoms and are active,” said Sreelaja Vazhakunnath, the chairperson of Cherpulassery Municipality.
The cleaning staff lives a bit far and all this while had been using public transport. The clerk lodges as a paying guest in a house in Cherpulassery. “The house owners and other paying guests in the building, with whom this lady has close contacts, have been asked to undergo quarantine,” Sreelaja said.