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Sonia Gandhi satisfied with how Maharashtra govt handled Covid-19 crisis

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India is staggering under the resurgent wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, with over 3.6 lakh cases reported on Wednesday and more than 3,200 fatalities. A lion’s share of this devastation could be chalked up to the western state of Maharashtra, which has so far racked up 4.34 million cases and over 65,000 deaths. The state has been consistently adding more than 50,000 new cases daily in the last couple of weeks. But for Sonia Gandhi, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra is doing just fine.

The interim Congress president on Tuesday said that she is satisfied with the way the Maharashtra government has handled the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Lavishing praises on the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, in which Congress is an alliance partner, Sonia Gandhi said she is pleased with the “professional and transparent handling of the pandemic”. This was revealed by state revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat, who is also the state Congress chief.

“Sonia Gandhi spoke to me at length on state government measures to tackle the situation. She expressed satisfaction over handling the crisis. She instructed that the vaccination drive should be expedited and vaccinations should be completed in a time-bound period,” Thorat said in an interview with the TOI.

While Sonia Gandhi expressed her satisfaction over the way Maharashtra handled the COVID-19 outbreak and reportedly urged Balasaheb Thorat to speed up the vaccination process, it is pertinent to note that Maharashtra is yet to take a decision on the vaccination drive for the population aged 18-45 that is set to begin from May 1.

A cabinet meeting is scheduled to take on Wednesday during which the Maha Vikas Aghadi government will take the decision over starting the vaccination drive for the people in the age group of 18-45.

Even as Sonia Gandhi lauds the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, there have been several instances when the state government has come under criticism for inept handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Migrant labours in Maharashtra left in the lurch as lockdown forces them to repatriate back to their villages

For over a month now, Maharashtra has been virtually under lockdown. While Uddhav Thackeray announced strict restrictions and imposition of Section 144 starting April 15, the state was almost under lockdown since April 3 as the coronavirus caseloads started rising at an alarming rate.

The specter of another wave of lockdown triggered a palpable sense of panic among the migrant population that was arguably the worst hit by the pandemic when it started in March last year. There was growing anxiety among the migrant labour in the city as they queued up at various bus stands and railway stations to board buses and trains to get back to their native places before the imposition of an inevitable lockdown. The migrants were left to fend for themselves as the Maha Vikas Aghadi did not announce relief measures for them before announcing the lockdown.

Shortages of beds, oxygen, and key antiviral drugs in Maharashtra

The situation in Maharashtra is particularly dire, with cities across the length and breadth of the state reporting an upsurge in coronavirus cases. Hospitals throughout the states have been swamped with COVID-19 patients as the state government scrambles to get private institutes and other medical centers to admit coronavirus patients.

The surge in coronavirus caseloads in Maharashtra also meant that the state is facing acute shortages in the availability of supplemental oxygen. Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray yesterday pointed out the scarcity of oxygen during his address to the state.

Testing backlog in Maharashtra in the wake of a sharp uptick in the COVID-19 cases

Even testing capabilities are under tremendous strain due to the inexorable rise in a number of coronavirus cases. Many testing centres have been witnessing serpentine queues as people suspicious of being infected are lining up to get themselves tested for Covid-19.

This has naturally created a backlog in testing at several laboratories across the state. The spike in Covid-19 cases precipitated by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and state guidelines mandating negative RT-PCR tests for those working in public transportation, home delivery services, film shoots, roadside eateries, and other categories have likely played a crucial role in exacerbating the testing backlog in the state.

The routine occurrence of hospital mishaps in Maharashtra

In a distressing event, an ambulance was found ferrying 22 dead bodies of Covid patients stashed one above the other from a hospital to the crematorium in Ambajogai in the Beed district of Maharashtra. 

Also, the condition of the state’s health infrastructure is worsening by the day. Thane district of Maharashtra reported yet another case of hospital fire in the wee hours of Wednesday. 3 patients are said to have succumbed after the fire engulfed the hospital.

Several hospitals in Maharashtra have reported fire incidents recently, killing dozens of people. Last week, a fire in a Virar hospital had killed 13 persons, a day after the leakage in an oxygen tanker took 23 lives at a hospital in Nashik.

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Delhi police interrogates Youth Congress president in court ordered probe

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The Delhi police today questioned Youth Congress president Srinivas B V over the allegations of illegal procurement and distribution of Covid-19 drugs in an ongoing investigation ordered by the Delhi High Court. The police have already questioned some AAP and BJP leaders in the case, and will question more politicians from various parties.

A team of the Delhi Police Crime Branch today reached the headquarters of the Indian Youth Congress to interrogate President Srinivas B V about the source of COVID-19 relief material his organisation is using to help the people. The police were acting on the directions of the Delhi High Court, who had asked it to conduct an enquiry into the involvement of politicians in the alleged illegal distribution of COVID-19 medicines.

While the Congress party raised an outrage over the questioning, and ‘neutral’ journalists questioned the appropriateness of investigating someone for distributing Covid-19 aid, it may be noted that BJP leaders have also been questioned and are being questioned in the same case. On May 11, Delhi BJP leader Harish Khuranna had informed that he was also questioned by Delhi Police, and he had given a statement.

“I gave them my statement and said I have never hoarded, purchased or sold any medicines. I went through official channels to help people get access to medicines. They showed me a copy of the High Court order based on which the enquiry is taking place,” Khurana said.

On the same day, the Delhi Police Crime Branch had questioned AAP MLA Dilip Pandey too in connection with alleged “illegal distribution of Covid medicines, etc”.

Delhi HC directs Police to enquire into the charge of “medical-mafia-political nexus” in the distribution of COVID-19 medicines

The inquiry by the Delhi Police is being conducted in accordance with a Delhi High Court order, which asked them to carry out an investigation into the involvement of politicians in the alleged illegal distribution of COVID-19 medicines. The Delhi Police is likely to summon BJP MP Gautam Gambhir, who is also at the forefront of helping people during the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

A petition was filed by Dr Deepak Singh, Chairman of Hruduya Foundation, in the Delhi High Court, seeking a CBI probe into an alleged “medical mafia-politician nexus” and illegal distribution of COVID medicines by politicians. The petitioner had mentioned Gambir, Srinivas, as well as BJP leaders Sujay Vikhe, Gautam Gambhir and Shirish Chaudhari, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Congress MLA Mukesh Sharma, NCP leaders Sharad Pawar and Rohit Pawar, citing the instances of Remdesivir distributed by them. The petition had also asked for the detention of such persons for allegedly indulging in black-marketing of Covid-19 medicines as per the National Security Act, 1980, and to disqualify the MLAs and MPs.

The court on May 4 had turned down the plea of filing FIR and CBI probe, but had asked the Delhi Police to examine the issue. The Court had asked the police to look into the instances of politicians allegedly directly procuring Remdesivir and distributing them to Covid-19 patients, and to file FIR if any irregularities were found. The court asked the state to file a status report within a week and listed the case for hearing on May 17.

“In case alleged incidents are found to have taken place in Delhi, Delhi Police should take appropriate steps by registration of FIR,” said the division bench of Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Rekha Palli in an order.

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Surge Tests, Vaccine Measures as B1.617.2 Covid-19 Variant Spreads Rapidly in Parts of UK

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The case numbers related to the B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, have more than doubled within a week in the UK, resulting in further surge testing and enhanced vaccine measures to be deployed in parts of the country where the strain is beginning to spread increasingly rapidly. Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday that its latest analysis shows the number of cases of the highly transmissible variant first detected in Maharashtra has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week.

Most cases are in the northwest of England, with some in London, and additional measures are being put in place to “rapidly break chains of transmission”. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the health authorities are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary, indicating that the roadmap to lifting all lockdown measures from June 21 may have to be reassessed.

This data demonstrates why our swift and decisive measures are in place. Everyone has a part to play in controlling this variant, from participating in surge testing, to following the rules, to getting the jab, said Hancock. We are committed to working with local areas and deploying our world-leading genomic sequencing to get this variant under control. We are supporting areas where the cases of this variant are rising, he said.

The minister said it is imperative that people who live in one of the 15 areas currently covered by surge testing processes get a free PCR test and everyone who’s eligible needs to come forward and get their vaccine. PHE said that while there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on the severity of disease or that it evades vaccines, the “speed of growth is concerning”.

UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the authorities are looking at how to best utilise the vaccine roll-out to protect the most vulnerable in the context of the current epidemiology, including the possibility of bringing forward the second doses for the most vulnerable in some of the most affected areas. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, one of the hotspots of the variant, has also called for a speeding up in the age eligibility criteria for vaccines in the affected areas. The National Health Service (NHS) is now offering a jab to all over the age of 38.

Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action, said Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE. Testing and isolating when required not only limits spread, it helps us to better understand how the variant behaves in the community which is vital to taking effective and proportionate action moving forward “The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same. Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside, keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside, she said.

The variant was confirmed as a “Variant of Concern” by PHE on May 7 after a rise in cases and evidence of spread in some areas. Since then across the northwest of England, significant work is underway with local councils and partners. In Bolton, mobile testing units have been deployed and door to door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents. A vaccine bus has been established in the heart of the community to increase vaccine uptake as part of a wider drive.

PCR testing, whole genome sequencing and enhanced contact tracing are being used throughout London to target the many small dispersed clusters. All positive tests in London with a high enough viral load are also being prioritised for genomic sequencing to check for variants, and surge testing can begin immediately if it is needed. Taking this community-led approach has already proved effective in reducing transmission of variants in London to date, PHE said.

To help identify variant cases, surge testing is being deployed in 15 areas across England to suppress transmission, with more than 800,000 additional PCR test kits distributed. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), over 4,400 cases and over 14,000 close contacts have been traced and instructed to self-isolate.

Over 200 existing test sites and 130 schools have distributed test kits, with Mobile Testing Units deployed to provide PCR testing for people without symptoms. The public is also being urged to continue to take up the offer of two free rapid tests a week, to help identify asymptomatic cases. Anyone who does test positive in this way should take a follow-up PCR test, which can be sent for genome sequencing to help catch new variant cases.

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National Platform to Determine Impact of Covid-19 Vaccines to Be Established Soon

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A national tracking platform will be established soon to determine the impact of the jabs against COVID-19 and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation, official sources said. The recommendation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) to establish such a platform has been accepted by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 and the Union Health Ministry, they said.

“The COVID-19 Working Group which is part of NTAGI has strongly recommended to urgently establish a national vaccine tracking platform to determine the impact of the COVID vaccine(s) and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation,” said Dr N K Arora, the INCLEN Trust chairperson who heads the COVID-19 Working Group. The vaccine tracker will be particularly important to monitor the impact of increasing the dosing schedule of Covishield, he said, as the government on Thursday accepted the working group’s recommendation to extend the gap between the two doses of the Covishield vaccine from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks.

The current data harmonisation work of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and other agencies can be leveraged to set up this facility for review of ground realities on real-time basis, the NTAGI has recommended. The government panel has also recommended that pregnant women may be offered the choice to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines and that lactating women can be inoculated any time after delivery.

The NTAGI has also stated that those having laboratory test proven SARS-CoV-2 illness should defer COVID-19 vaccination for six months after recovery, the sources said. According to the health ministry’s current protocol, vaccine is to be taken four to eight weeks after recovery from COVID-19 infection and pregnant and lactating women are not to be administered the shots.

The NTAGI recommended that all pregnant women visiting for antenatal care (ANC) may be informed about risks and benefits associated with Covishield and Covaxin. Based on the information provided, a pregnant woman may be offered the choice to take any of the vaccines. An educational tool comprising information on risk of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, benefits associated with the vaccination and rare complications associated with vaccines like thrombosis and thrombocytopenia (with Covishield) may be developed.

In case of individuals who have received the first dose and before completion of the dosing schedule if they test positive for COVID-19, they should wait for 4-8 weeks after clinical recovery from the illness. Also, COVID-19 patients who have been given anti-SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma may defer vaccination for three months from the day of discharge from hospital, the recommendations stated.

Individuals having any other serious illness requiring hospitalisation or ICU care should also wait for 4-8 weeks before getting the vaccine, it added.

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