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India relaxes COVID restriction to free up resources despite the grim situation  

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a mural on a street, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mumbai, India, January 10, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

India has relaxed its COVID-19 restrictions on testing, quarantine, and hospital admissions in order to free up resources for the country’s most vulnerable citizens, a measure praised by experts despite the possibility of a large undercount of infections and deaths.

The news: The changes will give healthcare facilities a breather as they battle a 33-fold increase in infections from the highly contagious Omicron variety over the past month in a far-flung nation of 1.4 billion people.

  • Federal officials announced last week that states should no longer require mandatory testing for proven case contacts unless they were elderly or suffering from other illnesses, as well as lowering the isolation period to a week and recommending hospitalisation only for the very ill.
  • On Thursday, India’s total number of infections surpassed 36 million, with 247,417 new cases, despite daily testing capacity remaining well below 2 million.

What they’re saying: Sanjay K. Rai, a professor of community medicine at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, said, “Contact-tracing has been the most resource-intensive task since the epidemic began.”

  • “That technique failed and was a waste of resources,” he said, adding that serological studies revealed it had only discovered a percentage of infections. “With the new one, we’ll be able to make the best use of what we have.”
  • Four Indian epidemiologists agreed with Rai, arguing that it was more important to track the number of people in hospitals than diseases, and that speedy testing should be targeted at congested sites like workplaces, dorms, and barracks.
  • They went on to say that the rules for shorter isolation and hospital stays were in accordance with global practise because most Omicron patients recover faster, even if they disseminate the virus more quickly.
  • However, other experts fear that the new restrictions would lull people into taking diseases for granted until it is too late, particularly in rural areas, which account for two-thirds of the population and where few people seek tests unless directed by authorities.
  • “This new method would have a disproportionate impact on data from rural India or particular areas,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiology expert at the University of Michigan.
  • “It will be more difficult to foresee future hotspots and epicentres,” she added, implying that authorities will have less time to mobilise resources to combat the disease.
  • It would also have an impact on the tracking of COVID-19 deaths, which Mukherjee described as “very imperfect and under-reported.”
  • According to health experts, India substantially undercounts illnesses, with the official death toll of roughly 485,000, owing to the fact that few victims of earlier waves, primarily in rural regions, were aware of their condition until the very last moment.

In addition: The best healthcare services in India are concentrated in major cities, leaving impoverished people throughout vast swaths of the country to rely on ageing government networks.

  • For example, government-run district hospitals in the mineral-rich state of Bihar have one of the lowest medical staff-to-patient ratios in India, whereas New Delhi is staffed at more than twice the national average.
  • Thousands of individuals bought home test kits in the last week, according to ICMR chairman Balram Bhargava, but he did not indicate if rural areas were as well supplied as metropolitan ones.

Because they are not obligated by the new testing requirements, several Indian states have decided to disregard them.

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