Over 6 lakh daily cases across India likely by mid-January due to Omicron, lockdowns imminent, say experts

‘If COVID cases from highly-virulent Omicron variant continue to double every two days, we’ll have 6 lakh cases a day in country by January 15,” noted infectious diseases expert Dr Ishwar Gilada said

Representational image
Representational image

Rahul Gul

With a sharp uptick in COVID cases in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities across the country attributed to the highly virulent Omicron variant of novel Coronavirus catching the authorities by surprise, the imposition of yet another phase of lockdowns may be imminent, medical experts have said.

As per official data of the Delhi Health Department, the number of fresh Covid case in Delhi has crossed the 1000-mark after 7 months, reaching 1,313 on Thursday -- a 42 per cent rise over Wednesday’s figures. The positivity rate touched 1.73 per cent even though no fresh deaths were reported. It had logged 923 cases of coronavirus on Wednesday -- a massive 86 per cent jump from Tuesday and the highest since May 30.

The national capital had reported 1,491 cases with a positivity rate of 1.93 per cent and 130 deaths on May 26, in the middle of the so-called second wave driven by the deadly Delta variant.

The country’s financial capital Mumbai too saw a massive surge in fresh coronavirus cases yet again on Thursday with 3,671 new infections - 46% higher compared to Wednesday. The city has witnessed a five-fold increase over the last week in the daily surge in Covid cases - 683 infections were reported on Friday last week.

Maharashtra recorded 5,368 fresh infections in the last 24 hours, 37 per cent higher than Wednesday.

A sudden increase in fresh cases has also been reported over two weeks in Ahmedabad, Ranchi, Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Chennai and Kolkata.

Data has shown that the average daily rise in Covid cases is almost 21 per cent faster than during the second wave in March-April. A seven-day moving average showed that the cases have shot up from 56 to 199. Thursday’s figures are likely to push the rate up even more.

In all, 961 confirmed cases of Omicron have officially been reported across the country as of Thursday evening, the Centre has said. It went on to say that there was 'no need to panic' even as it sent an advisory to affected states to take immediate measures to control the sudden surge.

Medical experts, however, disagree with that assessment. Speaking to National Herald, noted infectious diseases expert Dr Ishwar Gilada who pioneered HIV-AIDS treatment in India, said that the situation was beyond alarming.

“We saw fresh cases in Mumbai tripling in just 1.5 days. The positivity rate stood at 8.14 per cent on Thursday. Considering the highly transmissible nature of the Omicron variant, if cases double every two days, we will have 6 lakh cases a day in the country by January 15. Even if they double every three days, we will see that figure by January 26,” he said.

“As per some reports, COVID symptoms in those infected by the Omicron variant are milder and not that lethal. It may be that it will only hit the upper respiratory tract rather than the lungs, in which case oxygen levels won’t drop and hospitalization might not be necessary. But then the reality is that we are seeing a sizeable number of deaths in countries such as Russia, Germany and the US,” he said.

“We simply cannot take it lightly by speculating it will be mild. Nobody knows right now how things will pan out. We must keep in mind how bad the situation was during the second wave: millions scrambling for non-existent hospital beds and dying gasping for oxygen, victims not getting a proper funeral even in cities like Delhi, bodies floating down the Ganges. All this may well happen again,” Dr Gilada, who serves as president of AIDS Society of India and secretary general of Organised Medicine Academic Guild (OMAG) – a federation of 15 professional associations of post-graduate doctors in India, covering 250,000 consultants – said.

“The gravity of the situation is evident from the fact that the Rapid Antigen Test (RAT), which is known to give almost 40 per cent false negative results, is currently throwing up 100 per cent positive results,” he said.

Commenting on identification of COVID cases from the Omicron variant, he said that genome sequencing was not necessary. “S-gene dropout method in RT PCR tests can identify such cases. The cost of an RT PCR is nominal for the government. There’s simply no need to go for genome sequencing which is expensive and time consuming,” he said.

Asked if measures announced by the Centre such as ‘precautionary doses’ for those over 60 years of age and vaccinating those in the 15-18 age group will help, Dr Gilada said, “It is already too late for that to make a difference at this stage. Perhaps it will help in prevention later. We should have started much earlier.”

“Also, almost 3 crore people in the 60 plus population who may have co-morbidities have not received even a single dose of the vaccine despite the Centre’s tall talk on vaccinating all adults in the country by December 31,” he added.

Asked if the situation warranted clamping of lockdowns, Dr Gilada said stern measures were indeed needed if people continued to be lax in observing COVID-appropriate measures as was the situation presently. “A fresh phase of lockdowns seems imminent, though there will be more clarity about the situation on Friday, when we will cross 1000 mark of Omicron cases in India and 500 in Maharashtra,” Dr Gilada said.

He was, however, critical of measures such as marking homes and localities where COVID cases were detected as ‘containment zones’, as is being done currently in Delhi as mandated by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA). “This is a regressive practice. It just adds to the stigma for such families in the eyes of neighbours, grocery and milk delivery people etc. Since such cases are identified at govt hospitals which then intimate the concerned authorities, it may only discourage people from getting tested,” he said.

It may be recalled that the DDMA sounded a ‘yellow alert’ in Delhi on December 28 under the so-called Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) after the Covid positivity rate in the national capital was recorded above 0.5 per cent for two consecutive days.

Under this, the Delhi govt ordered closure of schools, colleges, cinema halls and gymnasiums with immediate effect and clamped various restrictions on the functioning of shops and public transport. Shops and establishments of non-essential goods and services and malls were ordered to open on an odd-even basis from 10 am to 8 pm. Public gatherings were banned and participation in weddings and funerals was restricted to a maximum of 20 people.

Asked to comment on this, Dr Gilada said, “Such restrictions are well-intentioned, but it has been seen that they may create a ‘license raj’ wherein unscrupulous officials resort to extorting money. It's important for senior supervisory officers to keep a sharp eye to check that. The flip side to that is, of course, that many people simply ignore such directions in the absence of an effective regulatory mechanism.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorised to speak to the media, a senior doctor working with a Delhi govt-run hospital said that a lockdown in the national capital was imminent. “The fact of the matter is that the actual number of cases would likely be ten times the official number, just as was the case during the second wave. Many people contract COVID and even lose their life outside the system and such numbers obviously never show up in official data,” she said.

“While a lockdown, of course, may have adverse consequences such as hitting the lower socio-economic strata comprising of daily wagers and migrant workers etc, it is equally important to save lives. Trade and market associations are protesting against even the 'yellow alert' but political parties must not pander to vote banks in such a situation. The fact is that even measures like imposition of night curfew and odd-even scheme for shops, even when enforced in letter and spirit – which is not always the case, as a quick visit to any market would reveal – cannot effectively check transmission of the virus,” she said.

“It would also be naïve to expect that New Year celebrations will be low key just because the Delhi govt has issued such orders. Remember how a ban was imposed on bursting of crackers on Diwali which literally went up in smoke. Considering that Omicron cases are going up and will continue to go up exponentially, a total lockdown must be imposed sooner than later,” she added.

A doctor-professor in a reputed tertiary care Central govt-run medical college and hospital concurred with that opinion. "A lockdown is imminent but it will happen as per Delhi govt's GRAP provisions," he said, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Incidentally, Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain on Thursday admitted that community spread due to Omicron variant had begun.

“Omicron is gradually spreading in the community and the new, fast-spreading variant of concern accounted for 46 per cent of the 115 Covid samples analysed in the national capital so far,” he was quoted as saying by a news agency.

"There are 200 coronavirus patients in Delhi hospitals. Genome sequencing of the samples of 115 patients showed 46 per cent had Omicron. These people include those who do not have any travel history. It means Omicron is now inside Delhi," Jain said, adding, "Indeed, the variant is gradually spreading in the community."

It may be recalled that the WHO had on Wednesday said that a ‘tsunami’ threatened to overwhelm healthcare systems due to the new Covid variant, after AFP data showed cases surging across the world in the past week to levels never seen before.

AFP reported a tally of 6.55 million infections globally for seven days through Tuesday, demonstrating the unprecedented spread of COVID.

The figures were the highest since the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020, underscoring the blistering pace of Omicron transmission.

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Published: 31 Dec 2021, 9:02 AM