A fresh wave of Covid-19 infections has set off alarm bells in Jammu and Kashmir, where authorities are facing new challenges including that triggered by a steady inflow of tourists from different parts of the country.
Experts fear mutated strains of the virus — detected in 18 states, including Maharashtra — have infiltrated J&K due to tourism activities, though the government has said there has been no such confirmation so far.
On Wednesday, health department director Mushtaq Rather appeared to admit the presence of mutant strains in samples collected from "five travellers and two locals", but he clarified to News18 later that these were suspected cases and not confirmed by laboratory reports.
Atal Dulloo, the financial commissioner for health and medical education, too, said there was no presence of any mutated strain in J&K.
"We don’t do genome sequencing routinely. So there is no data available to look at. Variants are increasingly being seen in the country and we can’t escape them. Cases are rising, but one cannot really tell whether a new variant has made an entry in Jammu and Kashmir," said Dr Parvaiz Kaul, a leading Internal and Pulmonary Medicine expert.
Genome sequencing is a method that helps detect a mutated strain.
"There is a distinct increase in cases and hospitalizations have increased too, though not dramatically. But if we have high numbers, it will cause an increase in severe cases as well as mortality," said Kaul.
Tourism a catalyst?
Health experts said the ingress of travellers and migrant labourers — some without the gold-standard RT-PCR test — into the Valley has resulted in a spike.
The government's approval to open tulip and almond parks for public this month, and the decision to hold a winter sports summit in Gulmarg last month attracted tourists in large numbers. Seasonal migration, too, is a challenge.
"Problem is we have a good number of travellers and they are not asked to carry an RT-PCR report as a mandatory requirement for coming to Kashmir. That would have reduced the case numbers and transmission," said Kaul. By the time a traveller knows he is positive, he has already got in contact with many people, according to him. "Quarantine of such cases is undertaken ineffectively," he said.
PK Pole, Kashmir divisional commissioner, said while authorities were allowing locals and tourists to visit parks, they were also ensuring that basic protocols were followed. "We don't allow anyone into the parks without masks," he said.
Pole said it was important that economy activity was resumed. "But now…we will try to contain it. We take weekly or biweekly reviews on Covid," he said.
Increasing Covid numbers have now prompted the government to put Srinagar district, which on average registers 40% of cases across J&K every day, in orange category (medium risk), while the other 19 districts are still in green (safe zones). Two smaller belts, Lakhanpur and Banihal — from where outsiders make entry into the region — have been categorised as sensitive red zone.
The current spike is evident from the third week of March. As compared to January and February — daily cases had declined to 40-60 in the first 10 days of February — the numbers have gone up to 200 and more. In the last 15 days, nearly 2,900 cases were added to the overall tally of 130,587 infections. There have been 1,990 deaths — 1,255 in Kashmir and 735 in Jammu in the past one year.
On Tuesday, health authorities reported 359 people — the most in a day this year — had contracted the viral infection. One hundred and fifty of them including 51 travellers were in Srinagar alone.
"Almost half of the positive cases are among travellers; testing of air travellers happens but no testing (is there) for those who use roads," Saleem Khan, head of the Social and Preventive Medicine (SPM) at Government Medical College, Srinagar, told News 18.
Doctors noted that owing to a rise in cases, hospital admissions were up. "We would admit five patients on an average per day in February, but now we are back to taking 10-12 such patients," said a doctor in charge of a Covid ward at SMHS Hospital.
Doctor Khan said people were complacent and not adhering to SOPs (standard operation procedures). "Emergence of new variants can be a concern. There is also clustering of cases due to public gatherings like marriages, funerals, condolences, get-togethers, parties, tourist places, concerts," he said.
Khan said just 5% of the population had been covered so far. Only 1% of the population in Jammu and Kashmir has been fully vaccinated (administered both doses) against Covid-19 so far, noted Dr Nisar ul Hassan of the Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK).
"Most of the people are still susceptible to Covid-19 infection," Hassan, who is also an influenza expert, said.
According to the vaccination data from Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Jammu and Kashmir administered the first dose of Covid-19 vaccine to 6,34,953 people as of March 30. The figure represents 5% of J&K's 1.3 crore population. Full vaccination (both doses) has been given to 1,42,895 people.
"We need to vaccinate around 70 percent of the population to bring an end to the ongoing public health crisis," Hassan noted. "When enough people are vaccinated, virus can't find any host to survive, replicate and move on," he said, pointing out that will take years globally.