Kerala lags in COVID-19 testing even as cases rise once more

As of May 26, Kerala had carried out 1956 tests per million population, far below the national average of 2679 tests per million people.
Sample being taken for COVID-19 testing
Sample being taken for COVID-19 testing
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On May 8, a hundred days after India’s first COVID-19 case was reported from Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan proudly announced that the state had managed to flatten the curve. As NRIs and other residents returned from abroad and other parts of India and the lockdown was relaxed, Kerala witnessed a steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. But contrary to its efforts initially, Kerala has failed to significantly ramp up testing over the last few weeks. 

What’s more, Kerala is now testing far below the national average of 2679 tests per million population. As of May 26, Kerala had tested 65300 samples (including sentinel testing) or 1956 tests per million population. And while the state was lauded for aggressively testing in March and April, it now lags behind all of its southern neighbours barring Telangana, which last provided data on May 18. TNM analysed Kerala’s testing data for the past five weeks. Here’s what we found. 

On May 1, when Kerala for the first time reported no new coronavirus cases, the state had tested 1177 samples since the previous day. The following day, the state tested 4033 samples in a single day - the highest so far. Only two COVID-19 cases were detected on May 2. But since then, the number of samples tested for COVID-19 dropped gradually. 

The gradual reduction in daily COVID-19 testing came even as Kerala relaxed its lockdown restrictions, and opened its borders, allowing stranded residents to return from other states from May 4 and foreign returnees from May 7. 

Between May 5 and May 12, Kerala tested 4747 samples, averaging a meagre 678 samples a day. Twenty-two cases were reported that week. Compare these figures to the week between April 28 and May 5 when Kerala tested 9820 samples, while 17 tested positive. 

Although the state dropped to a low of 394 daily tests on May 11, over the next seven days it increased testing by 17.91% from the previous week. Between May 12 and May 19, Kerala witnessed a rise in cases, reporting 118 new COVID-19 patients, with the source of majority of infections being those who returned from other places.   

Kerala witnessed another sharp spike in cases between May 19 and May 26, with 321 patients testing positive for the novel coronavirus. However, the state is still averaging 1392 daily tests - just a marginal increase in tests conducted on May 1 when it reported no cases. 

But while Kerala’s overall testing samples hasn’t significantly increased, since the end of April, the state did begin a sentinel surveillance. To check for community spread of the disease, the state is collecting samples from those on the frontlines such as healthcare workers, and individuals with high social exposure. As of May 26, 8599 samples have been tested using the RT-PCR tests.  This is over and above the other samples tested. 

Kerala’s numbers are dismal when compared to states like Tamil Nadu, which is testing 11,000- 13,000 samples a day, while Andhra Pradesh conducts 8,000 to 10,000 daily tests.

Both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which started slowly have managed to ramp up testing by increasing the number of laboratories. While Tamil Nadu has 68 (41 government and 27 private) approved labs for COVID-19 testing, Andhra has 52 (10 RT-PCR, and 42 TrueNat). In comparison, Kerala has 23 labs (15 government, 8 private) that conduct RT-PCR or real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction testing, considered the gold standard for diagnosing the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.   

In a recent interview to The Print, Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja said that despite criticism of low testing, the state was “testing strategically”. She also added that the focus was “breaking the chain of transmission through quarantine and isolation”. “Our approach is multi pronged instead of just focussing on tests,” said the Health Minister.

Meanwhile in a press briefing on Wednesday evening, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the state will ramp up testing in the coming days. “In the all-party meeting held today (Wednesday), many had opined that the state should increase its testing number. The government has already taken a decision on the matter. Earlier we did not have enough test kits, but now we have. In the coming days, 3,000 tests will be conducted each day. Necessary arrangements for this are being done,” said the CM. 

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