The Union government has announced that districts can open up if they have a test positivity rate below 5% and have vaccinated 70% of the vulnerable population.

A dog crosses an empty strech of road in Chennai as a barricade is placed during the lockdownPTI
Coronavirus Lockdown Thursday, June 03, 2021 - 15:10

Tamil Nadu’s intense lockdown, which began on May 24, is set to end on June 7. While Chief Minister MK Stalin on Tuesday hinted that the lockdown may not be extended post June 7, it appears that Tamil Nadu may be far from ready to open up if one were to go by the parameters set by the Union government. The Union government had on Tuesday announced that districts should open up only if the test positivity rate is below 5% for at least a week, a minimum of 70% of the vulnerable population — persons above the age of 60 and those above 45 years with comorbidities — have been vaccinated and community ownership of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour and care. 

The state had recorded an all-time high of 36,184 fresh COVID-19 cases on May 21, and seen active cases reach a peak of 3,13,048 on May 27. However, the case numbers — both daily infections and the active caseload — have witnessed a drop. On June 2, Tamil Nadu reported 25,317 new infections, while the active caseload stood at 2,88,702. Despite the fall in absolute numbers, Tamil Nadu’s test positivity rate remains high at 14.52% on June 2 — far higher than the below 5% mark mandated by the Union government for opening up. 

Even Chennai, which has reported a bulk of the COVID-19 infections in the state, recorded a test positivity rate of 6.83% as of 9 am on June 3. This despite Chennai’s COVID-19 cases falling from an all-time high of 7,772 daily infections to 2,297 on June 2.   

In terms of vaccinations, Tamil Nadu has vaccinated a total of 25,74,087 persons above the age of 60, and 32,82,886 as on June 2. According to Times of India, only 20% of persons above the age of 60 have received one dose of the vaccine, while 8% are fully vaccinated in Tamil Nadu. There is no data for how many people above the age of 45 with comorbidities have been vaccinated.

Speaking to TNM, Dr K Kolandasamy, retired Director of Public Health, Tamil Nadu said that the Union government’s criteria, in particular 70% vaccination coverage among the vulnerable population, may not be practical for states to implement. “We should look at the situation practically,” he says, pointing out that Tamil Nadu has received only one crore vaccine doses in total for a population of over 7 crore. “This means it will take a longer time to meet the criteria because of inadequate supply. We can’t continue to lockdown. It will shatter the livelihood of people from different walks of life,” he asserts.  

He points out that instead of test positivity rate, public health officials look instead at absolute case numbers while considering unlocking. Kolandasamy suggests setting an upper limit for fresh cases emerging from each city or district based on whether its health infrastructure can handle the caseload. 

The former DPH, however, emphasises that restrictions cannot be completely relaxed, and only essential activities be permitted. “Even if there are fewer cases, curbs on non-essential activities should continue. There should be curbs on on-essential activities like religious functions, marriages, funerals, cinema theaters etc.” Kolandasamy also says closed spaces like shops and malls must ensure proper ventilation before they are allowed to open up. “Lockdown is an emergent measure to improve the system. The focus should be on public health measures, and whatever cases come, the system should be in a place to handle instead of indefinitely extending the lockdown,” he emphasises.