COVID-19 in Bengaluru: Has the end of the second wave begun?

Since May 12, COVID-19 cases gradually declined for three days in a row but shot up again on May 17.
Testing for coronavirus being done at a Bengaluru bus stop
Testing for coronavirus being done at a Bengaluru bus stop

Bengaluru, which has been the hotspot of active cases within Karnataka ever since the onset of the pandemic, is showing signs of improvement in the second wave. On May 16, the official bulletin said that a total of 8,344 new cases were detected based on 42,642 tests conducted on May 15. This meant a test positivity rate (TPR) of 20% on the day, significantly lower than the average of 38% test positivity rate (number of positives per 100 tests) recorded in the city for the last 14 days between May 2 and May 15. To note, the daily bulletin gives data based on the number of tests conducted on the previous day and the corresponding results.

Purely based on the case numbers too, the 8,344 new COVID-19 cases recorded on May 16 is significantly lower than 19,044, which was the average daily case count between May 2 and May 15. Since May 12, cases have been on a gradual decline. On May 17, the number of cases recorded was 13,338 with the total number of tests conducted reducing to 27,943. This meant that the positivity rate shot up to a massive 48% even though the case number remained much below the 14-day period. It is, however, important to note that testing numbers reduce substantially during the weekend, and in particular on Sundays in the city. 

The average daily tests conducted in Bengaluru between May 2 and May 16 was 50,196.

Currently, Bengaluru and the rest of Karnataka is under a stringent lockdown from April 28 to May 24. The city, like many other urban areas in the country, was seeing many patients suffer due to the lack of adequate health care facilities. There was a massive dearth of oxygen, oxygenated hospital beds, HDU (high-dependency units), ICU (intensive care units) and ventilators required to treat these patients.

Spike since March

The crisis arose with a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases since mid-March 2021, which went unarrested till now. Correspondingly, the positivity rate and fatalities also rose.

According to the state government/ BBMP War Room data, the case numbers, which were reducing on a month on month basis since November 2020, suddenly reversed. The total number of cases recorded in March 2021 was 31,886 when the number of cases recorded in November, December, January and February were 32,101, 18,551, 10,311, 6,813 respectively.

The total number of cases recorded in April 2021 was 3,38,360 (more than 10 times that of March 2021). In May 2021 (till May 16), there were 2,74,965 cases. In a similar major spike in deaths, the city recorded 1,907 fatalities in April compared to 147 deaths in March. And in the first 15 days of May, the city officially reported 2,946 deaths due to COVID-19.

Experts see encouraging signs

While the recent case numbers are seemingly encouraging, according to a live model prepared by IIT Kanpur, Bengaluru has seen its peak already on May 6 and is likely to see a gradual drop in cases. It is to be noted that the model predicts a seven-day average of new infections for the particular date. According to their model, which has been fairly accurate till its last update May 13, the number of cases (in a seven-day average) will reduce to 4,991 by June 5.

Bhramar Mukherjee, Professor of Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Michigan, has also seen encouraging signs (for the entire state and not just Bengaluru alone). “Karnataka is showing signs of turning around: R, TPR, case count, fatalities all in the right direction,” she tweeted on May 15. R refers to Reproduction number, which shows the number of infections from one infected person. 

Dr Pradeep Banandur, a senior epidemiologist at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health And Neurological Sciences) and part of the state-level Technical Advisory Committee, said that the trend over the past few days is encouraging although it would be wise to wait for a week. “As per my epidemiological knowledge, it is a trend that has started. I would suggest that the state government extend the lockdown by another week (till June 1). But we have to consider other aspects as well. People are suffering from hunger. So there may be a hybrid model where the government decides on weekend lockdowns or partial lockdowns,” he said.

He added, “We are yet to see the effects of the lockdown extended from May 10 onwards. We are only experiencing the effects of the lockdown that started on April 28. Every lockdown will take 14 days to see any improvements.”

But not everyone is convinced with the progress.

Has the situation really improved?

According to Project Jeevan Raksha, an initiative of Proxima, supported by Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), the lockdown has not yielded the desired results due to inadequate management. 

“Bengaluru’s COVID-19 management performance is of serious concern. The seven-day MGR (moving growth rate) of positive cases has increased from 9% in the week ending April 14 to 16% in the week ending May 12. This implies that the daily average number of new cases has increased and also the doubling period has reduced. The surge is witnessed in spite of a complete lockdown being imposed in the city since April 27,” their study issued on May 15 said. Doubling time refers to the number of days it takes for the COVID-19 cases to double. 

The study noted that unlike Mumbai, Bengaluru’s fatality rate was not reducing.

Mysore Sanjeev, convenor of the study, said, “In Mumbai, positive cases growth rate and mortality growth rate have come down. This reflects the quality of COVID-19 management. On the other hand, if any city or state shows reduction in average daily cases but mortality is increasing or not much change, we can infer that the reduction in caseload is artificially controlled by controlling tests, as in the case of Delhi and Bengaluru,” he added.

Dr Mohak Gupta, who is part of the iCART COVID-19 research team, too, questioned the current scenario. “Karnataka is showing signs of the wrong kind of turnaround. Know thy confounders! Daily tests are down by a staggering -33%. Went from 1.8 lac to 1.2 lac daily tests in the last two wks. This then leads to Rt and daily cases showing a false turnaround (sic),” he tweeted, commenting on Bhramar’s projections.

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