BHUBANESWAR: With the highly transmissible variant Omicron driving a tsunami of Covid cases in Odisha - from 112 on December 25 to 3,679 on January 7, State Capital Bhubaneswar has been the worst hit.
The city, which is a part of hotspot Khurda district, has been witnessing a surge in infections since the beginning of the year. The cases went up from 79 on January 1 to 638 on January 6 posting a growth of 707% in a week.
How did cases explode so soon? Was the State government aware that cases would rise so rapidly? Perhaps, no.
Because, it sat on a directive of the Centre that had asked eight states to conduct genome sequencing of all Covid positive samples from eight cities, including Bhubaneswar, so that presence of Covid variant can be known and curbs imposed.
A day after the State detected the first two cases of Omicron variant from two Nigeria returnees on December 21, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had asked local health authorities to send all positive samples from Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune for sequencing to determine whether Omicron was already circulating in their populations.
But surprisingly Odisha did not adhere to it and gave priority to sequence positive samples of only foreign returnees until first January.
As most of the new cases of the city are from the education hub Chandrasekhar, Patia, Nayapalli and Sahid Nagar and the infections are suspected to be driven by Omicron, health experts said had the sequencing done as per the advice of the NCDC, the vulnerability could have been known earlier and accordingly the administration would have planned preventive measures.
The decision to sequence all Covid-19 positive samples was taken after the early signs of Omicron circulating in the community remained unnoticed.
The death of a 45-year-old woman from Balangir with Omicron but without any travel history on December 27 proves that the super mutant variant is very much present in the community. But her case was known a week later only after her death. She was, however, admitted for brain stroke.
"The planned sequencing in Bhubaneswar would have helped us monitor possible community transmission of Omicron. Curbs like ban on congregation could have been imposed earlier and educational institutions closed from the beginning of the month instead of January 10," the health experts said.
Odisha now has only one lab - the Institute of Life Sciences (ILS) for genome sequencing and it is overwhelmed as samples from four states are being sequenced here. Though Regional Medical Research Centre (RMRC), Bhubaneswar is an authorised lab of ICMR for sequencing, it is yet to start the process as the required equipment is not available.
"Since Covid is expected to stay for a long with the possibility of newer variants, the State government should give more priority to the healthcare of people and invest on setting up labs, health facilities and recruit more trained manpower instead of doling out freebies," said the health experts.
Expressing concern over the surge in Covid cases in Bhubaneswar, touted as the first city in the country to cover all eligible population with two doses of vaccines, noted microbiologist Dr Tribhuvan Mohan Mohapatra said the citywide sequencing could have helped detect Omicron transmission in the community and enabled health authorities to initiate early containment measures before large outbreaks emerge.
"The government is doing more harm to the society by not pushing for genome sequencing aggressively. Though Omicron infection is not leading to the severity in most of the cases, there are dual infections - Delta plus Omicron that are making patients more serious. How can we know unless sequencing of a sizable samples is done?" Dr Mohapatra questioned.
The State health authorities, however, said the curbs were imposed following early signs of community transmission. "Surveillance samples are regularly sent to ILS for sequencing. But since it is the only lab in the State, it is not possible to conduct analysis of all positive cases on daily basis," said a health