Even as Odisha was witnessing a decline in the test positivity rate, the rural Covid surge that health experts and state government had feared all along might be happening across the state.
On Saturday, the test positivity rate (TPR) in Odisha dropped to 14.7% and the state reported 7,188 new infections from over 10,000 a couple of days ago, according to the state health department data. “We are on a better position as TPR is declining. There is little cause for worry now,” said director of public health Niranjan Mishra.
However, experts attributed fewer new cases to declining number of tests. From over 67,000 tests on May 22, the total number of tests dropped to a little over 28,000 on May 28, data suggests. “Isn’t the state government’s celebration a little too premature?” asked Gouranga Mohapatra, state convenor of Jana Swasthya Abhiyan, a public health campaign. “If the government tests nearly 100,000 a day, we would have at least 20,000 cases a day. The government is simply not testing enough in rural Odisha, where the surge is happening,” Mohapatra added.
As per state health department’s statistics, around 55% of the 400,000 odd positive cases since April 1 this year are from rural areas. While around 51% of the total cases were from rural areas in April, it climbed up to 57% in May.
In Dhenkanal district, which is clocking TPR of around 37%, the highest in Odisha over the past one week, 96 people in Barsinga village of Hindol block tested positive after attending a community feast. Similarly, in Jaypur Kateni village of Parjang block in the district, 82 tested positive. In Mundideuli village of Kamakhyanagar block, 52 tested positive.
“We have declared all these villages as containment zones keeping with our policy of labelling any village with more than 10 positive cases. In rural areas, surveillance by police is not possible during lockdown due to lack of manpower. When people come in contact with positive cases in marriage feasts, dozens are getting infected. Marriage feasts have become superspreader events in our district,” said Dhenkanal district collector Bhumesh Behera.
While the Covid surge in rural areas continues, cyclone Yaas might have made things worse for the cyclone-affected districts of Balasore, Bhadrak, Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur district, experts said.
In coastal Jagatsinghpur, which was affected by the cyclone early this week, three villages of Gadaharispur panchayat under Erasama block were declared as containment zone till June 4.
Erasama block development officer Kailash Behera said though the administration had identified 32 designated shelters with a capacity of 1,000 persons in the block, at least 8,000 people took shelter in 150 more buildings the night before the cyclone struck the Odisha coast.
“Scared of the cyclone hitting the district, those people ran into any pucca building including anganwadi centre in the area on Tuesday evening. No one knows if any of them followed Covid protocols,” said Behera. Soon after the cyclone, 14 persons, including the panchayat executive officer and the gram rozgar sevak who took part in the evacuation process, tested positive for Covid-19.
In cyclone-affected Kendrapara district, at least 13 villages were declared containment zones after 550 persons tested positive in two days. In Balasore district, panchayati raj functionaries said the number of positive persons is likely to go up in next few days.
Nibedita Nayak, sarpanch of Baripada grampanchayat in Bahanaga block, where cyclone Yaas made the landfall, said many people in the villages were showing Covid symptoms. “As many villages are waterloddged and people are taking shelter in pucca buildings or in someone else’s house, Covid protocols are difficult to follow. I expect cases to explode in next few days once tests rise,” said Nayak.
Health experts said cyclone-affected districts are likely to report more positive cases in next few weeks due to crowding of shelters. “Balasore, which has been consistently reporting over 30% positivity over the last month, has seen fewer tests after Yaas struck Odishs coast. Same is the case with Bhadrak district, which is now reporting over 36% positivity over last week. From 4,400-odd tests before the cyclone, Balasore is now testing less than one third of it. Bhadrak’s numbers are down by over 75% from its pre-cyclone numbers of over 2,500. Once the testing in these two districts reaches pre-cyclone level, they would report much higher cases,” said Sarit Rout of Public Health Foundation of India.
Gouranga Mohapatra of Janaswasthya Abhiyan said the rural surge of Covid would continue to be headache for Odisha considering the lack of doctors in many primary health centres. “The government erred in not starting quarantine centres in villages where home isolation is practically impossible due to lack of space. The testing strategy is also flawed as only symptomatic people are being tested while other people in the family who are exposure to the symptomatic person are not tested. This would result in the spread of virus go undetected,” he said.