“COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease. It has a high infection rate. We cannot use a switch to stop it,” said KK Shailaja, Kerala’s Health Minister, in response to reports that the state was not successful in controlling the second wave of coronavirus infection. Kerala was one of the few states that managed to contain the COVID-19 transmission in the early stages of the pandemic, keeping the mortality and infection rate low, until July 2020.
By mid-August 2020, Kerala started reporting a steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 8,000 to 2,000 patients testing positive for coronavirus every day. Today, although the number of cases has relatively reduced — between 2,000 and 1,000 new cases — Kerala remains one of the top five states that contributes to the active caseload in India, according to the Union Health Ministry.
“When the lockdown was imposed in the early stages of the pandemic, we put everything under control. Before May 2020, the daily cases were below 500. We reduced the fatality, keeping the mortality rate at 0.5% before May 2020. According to us, the infection rate was high; 33% of the people contracted the disease through contact,” she said. Infection rate shows the percentage of people within a population who are at risk of getting the disease from an infected person.
“We were worried that the 33% infection rate was high when other countries were reporting 100-120% infection rate. The world appreciated us for our efforts and some even remarked that only so much has spread’. But things changed when the lockdown was lifted,” said the Kerala Health Minister.
In July-August 2020, the mortality rate increased to 0.7%, according to Health Minister KK Shailaja. As the state's case fatality rate increased in mid-2020, many experts had pointed out that the ambiguity in reporting deaths, and as a result, several deaths were not categorised as death due to COVID-19.
“We have always tried to slow down the peak. Experts knowledgable in COVID-19 management and infectious disease management would agree that when there is a peak, thousands of people don't die. We have a choice in that situation. And so, we chose to slow down the peak,” KK Shailaja told TNM.
The Kerala government started a series of campaigns, including Breaking The Chain and SMS (soap/sanitiser, mask and social distancing), and resorted to reverse quarantine when the cases increased. “Trace, quarantine, isolate and treat continues to be our slogan,” she said.
When Kerala started seeing a surge in cases in late 2020 and January 2021, the state health officials said it delayed the peak in the initial stage in order to strengthen its health infrastructure, so that it is not burdened or overburdened in case of a peak. It had also said that its main focus was reducing the mortality rate. While experts outside the government health team appreciated the Kerala government’s efforts, they pointed out the lack of enough testing via the RT-PCR method.
“In many other states, on the hand, when the cases surged, the situation went beyond the threshold of the health system. Hospitals were overwhelmed and thousands died. Here, in Kerala, we controlled it. Then how can one claim that Kerala failed in handling the second phase of the COVID-19? We managed to bring down the fatality to 0.4%. We have maintained that global image of defeating the infection scientifically,” said KK Shailaja.
Watch: KK Shailaja's full interview with TNM