A Union health ministry statement confirmed the new infections in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, adding that the government is keeping a close watch on the situation. The outbreak has killed more than 3,000 people and infected over 100,000 people across the world.
The Kerala government’s public health team is working to trace 3,000 people who were in contact with these five people, according to a government official involved in the contact tracing exercise who did not want to be named.
The five people who have tested positive for Covid-19 include a father, mother and their son, and two relatives who ferried them home from the airport, state health minister K.K. Shailaja said after an emergency meeting on Sunday.
According to Shailaja, despite standing instruction to report visits to virus-struck countries, the family did not, and initially refused to get tested after returning from Italy, where a quarter of the population at 16 million are quarantined.
“This is a crime. They didn’t report at the airport. The two relatives contacted the local health centre after catching fever and were isolated. Upon investigation, they told us about this family’s return from Italy. The family was initially unwilling to be admitted citing they don’t have any symptoms. But all of them have tested positive," Shailaja said.
The couple, in their sixties, and their 24-year-old son, had taken a flight from Italy to India on 29 February. Their condition is stable but a parent of the couple, an elderly woman, has heavy fever and is quarantined, according to the state health department. The state is also worried about medical staffers who attended the couple initially when they complained of fever at a private hospital, with minimal safety equipment and without knowing they were treating Covid-19 patients.
“Upon knowing that they tested positive on Saturday night, we did a video conference with Pathanamthitta district collector. We are tracking their co-passengers in Venice-Doha flight QR126 and Doha-Kochi flight QR514 which they took on 28 February. People who were in these flights should report immediately to control rooms in their respective districts ... we are hopeful of tracing the people they contacted by the day’s end," she added.
The incident has sparked a debate about loopholes in the system.
“The question, what percentage of travellers at Indian airports, who were supposed to “voluntarily" provide their travel history to authorities “in duplicate", would have withheld such information and proceeded with their everyday business? #Covid19. What’s our backup plan?" tweeted Oommen C. Kurian, a Pathanamthitta native and health expert at Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.
Following the development, the state has been put on high alert. Pathanamthitta district has temporarily banned all public programmes. A seven-member team has been formed to trace contacts of those who were in touch with the family, said Pathanamthitta district collector P.B. Nooh, who met political, religious and civic society leaders on Sunday.
Cabinet secretary Rajiv Guaba held the 16th review meeting on the epidemic on Sunday, where plans to bring Indian citizens from Iran were discussed in detail.
“Since the disease has spread over more than 90 countries with over 1 lakh cases worldwide, the states/UTs have been asked to enhance community surveillance as per the list of passengers provided to the states/UTs," said a health ministry statement.
“In view of rising cases from France, USA, Spain, it was decided to have dedicated aerobridges of these countries also in addition to the 12 countries," It said.
The Union health ministry is constantly monitoring and reviewing the status, actions taken and future preparedness of states. The ministry appealed to observe Dos and Don’ts, coughing etiquettes, hand-washing and avoid large gatherings.
Kerala recorded India’s first three cases last month and the patients had been cured. They were medical students from Wuhan and were later discharged from hospital. Their home quarantine period is also over. A total of 637 people are under observation in Kerala for the virus, according to official data, as part of the monitoring that began after India’s first coronavirus case was reported in the state last month.