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Avoid non-essential travel, warns government, seeks curbs in 24 districts with high positivity

According to Indian Express, with the number of Omicron cases in the country surging past the 100-mark with 26 cases recorded Friday, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director general Balram Bhargava issued a call to avoid non-essential travel and mass gatherings, and observe low-intensity festivities — especially to mark the new year.

Addressing a Covid-related briefing Friday, he also called for “local restrictive measures” to be implemented in 24 districts from seven states, including nine in Kerala and eight in Manipur, with a weekly test positivity rate above 5 per cent.

Pointing out that Omicron is spreading fast across Europe and other parts of the world, Bhargava said: “I would like to further emphasise: time to avoid non-essential travel, time to avoid mass gatherings, and time to observe low-intensity festivities…ushering in the new year is to be very low intensity, that is very important.”

Referring to the new variant, Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said: “It is spreading very fast after its emergence… Over 27,000 cases of Omicron have been reported from 91 countries.”

The number of confirmed Omicron infections in India have crossed 100. But there is no evidence that the levels of positivity being observed in the 24 districts flagged by the Government is being caused by the new variant. This indicates that Omicron might still have relatively low penetration in the Indian population, as of now.

In India, 113 cases of Omicron have been detected so far, with the sharpest daily spike recorded Friday: 12 in Delhi, eight in Maharashtra and two each in Gujarat, Telangana and Kerala.

Meanwhile, referring to the districts with relatively higher weekly test positivity rates, Bhargava said: “We still have about 24 districts, which have more than 5 per cent positivity, and they need to ensure local restrictive measures till the weekly test positivity rate comes below 5 per cent for at least two weeks…that is important.”

According to Health Ministry data, 24 districts reported more than 5 per cent weekly test positivity rate between December 9 and 15, which is much higher than the below 1 per cent figure for the entire country during the same period.

Topping the list is Kerala with Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam, Idukki, Kozhikode, Kannur, Ernakulam, Kollam, Wayanad and Pathanamthitta. Next in line is Mizoram with Khawzawl, Serchhip, Champhai, Mamit, Hnahthial, Lunglei, Aizawl and Lawngtlai on the list.

The others include Namsai and Dibang Valley (Arunachal Pradesh), North District and South District (Sikkim), Lahaul & Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), Zunheboto (Nagaland) and Kolkata.

Quoting the WHO chief, Agarwal said: “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. We are concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild.” Most cases of this variant have a travel history or had contacts with those who have travel histories, he said.

Agarwal said the new daily cases are below 10,000 but there is a continued need to stay vigilant. While the daily positivity rate (0.59 per cent) has remained less than 2 per cent for the last 74 days, the weekly positivity rate (0.63 per cent) has been hovering below 1 per cent for the last 33 days.

Agarwal said that out of the total active cases in the country, Kerala and Maharashtra account for more than 10,000 active cases each, while three states have cases in the range of 5,000-10,000 and 31 states less than 5,000 cases each.

Addressing the briefing, NITI Aayog member Dr VK Paul said there is need to observe “profound caution”. “If we look at the overall situation, it is quite stable. In some districts, the positivity rate is rising. If there is a requirement, then rule-based, criteria-based restrictions can be implemented there,” Paul said.

Efforts should also be made to ensure contact tracing, quarantine and containment zones to control the pandemic, he said.

Paul said that wherever there are clusters, it is the responsibility of the states and districts to contain them and put in place measures of surveillance and containment and investigate whether it is a new variant.

Discussing the Covid situation across the globe, Paul said that a “new phase” of Covid is being experienced in Europe with a steep rise in cases. Comparing the case count of the UK with India, Paul said going by population-level conversion, the 80,000 cases there would add up to 14 lakh in India.

On a query about the upcoming assembly polls in five states, Paul said guidelines have been issued that apply to all sections of society.

Sources in the Health Ministry said that an internal committee of the Election Commission will decide the way forward amid the Omicron threat. Inputs were sought from the Ministry and state governments, sources said.

According to the Health Ministry, the active caseload stood at 86,415 Friday as 7,447 new cases were reported in the last 24 hours. “Active cases account for less than 1 per cent of total cases, currently at 0.25 per cent; lowest since March 2020,” the Ministry said in a statement.

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