Kerala's COVID-19 spike due to 'gross negligence', says Union health minister

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New Delhi: With Kerala witnessing a spike in coronavirus infections recently, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Sunday said the state was paying the "price for gross negligence" during Onam festivities when unlocking of services along with an increase in travel for trade and tourism led to the spread of COVID-19.

"Kerala has paid a high price for its gross negligence," Vardhan said while answering social media interactors during the sixth episode of Sunday Samvaad, a program wherein the minister answers pressing questions on the pandemic.

"There were huge congregations during Onam and adequate safety measures were not taken," the minister said.

"I would say that other states should learn a lesson from Kerala. All states need to be careful during the coming festival season," he added.

Between January 30 and May 3, Kerala reported only 499 cases and two deaths and the cases were concentrates in only a few districts, the minister said adding the resumption of interstate and intrastate travel started triggering the number.

The first confirmed COVID-19 case in India was reported in Kerala on January 30. It took 203 days to breach the 50,000-mark in total COVID cases as the state managed to rein in the spread of the infection with stringent surveillance. However, the next 50,000 was reached within the next 23 days. And on October 13, Kerala's COVID-19 tally crossed the 3 lakh-mark.

"Epi curve of Kerala changed completely due to Onam festivities across the State, the daily new cases nearly doubled," he said.

A central team was sent to the state to examine why the situation has worsened over the past few weeks. Health experts said the next few weeks are critical for the state and asked officials and public not to lower their guard during the festive season.

Kerala reported 9,016 fresh COVID-19 cases on Saturday, taking the infection tally to 3,32,228 as the toll touched 1,139 with 26 more fatalities. As many as 7,991 returned negative, taking the recoveries so far to 2,36,989, Health minister K K Shailaja had said in a press release.

The active caseload touched 96,004. Three districts accounted for over 1,000 cases, with Malappuram recording 1,519, Thrissur 1,109 and Ernakulam 1,022. While Kozhikode reported 926 cases, Thiruvananthapuram had 848.

Kerala's only consolation is that the case fatality rate is lower than the rest of the country. Even then, over 1,000 have lost their lives to COVID in the state. Earlier, the minister had also criticized Kerala for not giving accurate details on COVID fatality in the state.

Answering a question on the discrepancy in the COVID-19 death figures, Vardhan said that the Ministry of Health has taken up the issue of correct certification of COVID-19 deaths with all states and UTs on multiple instances.

It has also shared a proper modality of reporting of deaths with them to ensure consistency in reporting of COVID-19 related deaths across India, the minister said.

Festivals amid pandemic

During the interaction, Vardhan reiterated his request to everyone to celebrate festivals at home with their loved ones in the traditional way to ward off the risk of COVID-19 infection.

This festive season, charity must take precedence over celebrations.

"My own celebrations too shall remain subdued due to the heart-rending impact of COVID-19 on lakhs of corona warriors across the world battling for us," the minister stated.

He exhorted the people to honour the prime minister's call for a 'jan andolan' (mass movement) to religiously follow COVID-appropriate behaviour.

No shortage of medical oxygen

He also assured that there is no shortage of medical oxygen in the country and that the government is ready to scale up the production capacity to meet any further increase in demand arising due to the pandemic.

On the availability of medical oxygen in the country, he said the current oxygen production capacity of India is around 6400 MT/Day.

The government is ready to scale up the production capacity to meet any further increase in demand arising due to the pandemic, he said.

The Empowered Group constituted by the home ministry is monitoring the requirement of medical oxygen across India.

The health ministry is also monitoring the availability and supply of medical oxygen at the field level through regular video conferencing with state nodal officers as well as with principal secretaries or mission directors.

He said 1,02,400 medical oxygen cylinders had been delivered to states and UTs.

The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority has fixed the price of Liquid Medical Oxygen. Guidelines on 'Rational use of oxygen for management of COVID-19' have also been issued, he informed.

No mutation of coronavirus

Vardhan also said that as of yet, no mutation of coronavirus has been detected in India that is either more transmission efficient or more pathogenic.

He rekindled the joy of having morning tea with the daily newspaper in a respondent by reassuring him that there is no scientific evidence that proves that novel coronavirus transmission can happen via newspapers.

"Reading newspapers is completely safe even during the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.

Vardhan remarked that although there are no intranasal COVID-19 vaccines under trial in India at the moment, Serum India and Bharat Biotech are expected to pursue clinical trials of such vaccines in the country in the coming months on receipt of regulatory approval.

He clarified that the Phase 3 clinical trial is generally with thousands of participants, sometimes even close to 30,000 to 40,000.

It is possible that from a specific city or hospital, a couple of hundred participants are selected at a given time but, in general, the overall Phase 3 participant pool is much larger, the minister said.

Keep politics away: Mohammed Asheel

Dr Mohammed Asheel, executive director of the Kerala Social Security Mission under the government's Social Justice Department decried Harsh Vardhan's statement.

"What the minister said is wrong to the core. If in doubt, ask ur scientists in ICMR. Keep politics away from pandemic," Asheel wrote on Facebook.

"As a politician, he can say anything (about Kerala's Covid numbers). But as a minister, he should get his facts right before issuing such a statement," he wrote.

(With inputs from PTI)

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