Chennai’s test positivity rate twice that of Tamil Nadu amid Omicron spread


With the fast moving Omicron variant, Chennai’s Covid test positivity rate has surged from 3.3% on January 1 to 17.4% as on January 9 which is exactly twice the state average which increased from 1.4 to 8.7% during the same period. The state capital, like most metros, has been the driver of increasing the number of cases in Tamil Nadu since the beginning of the pandemic and is contributing to the caseload in the third wave of infections.

“The test positivity rate is an indicator of the magnitude of the active transmission of the infection,” says public healthcare expert and retired director of Tamil Nadu’s public health, Dr K Kolandaswamy. “The real issue that we are seeing world over is that people have a wrong impression that Omicron is mild. It is only mild among the vaccinated population and those who have been infected and recovered. That’s not the case for those who are unvaccinated, above 60 and have co-morbidities.”

Cases began doubling in Chennai last week. From 876 new cases on January 3, the capital city reported 2,481 cases on January 5. On Monday, Tamil Nadu reported 13,990 new cases out of which 6,190 from Chennai. The number of people tested in the state is 1.34 lakh on Monday while Chennai tested more than 35,000 as of January 9, according to a state health bulletin.

The positivity rate in Chennai is however much lower compared to Mumbai (28.5%) on January 9 and Delhi (25%) on Monday.

Though overall, hospitalisation has been lesser this time around compared to the second wave of the Delta variant, the beds in private facilities are fast filling up but government facilities still have a large number of beds vacant.

As of Monday, only 6,706 beds occupied out of a total of 75,086 beds which includes ICUs and those with oxygen support available across the state. The state has not dismantled its infrastructure which was in place during the second wave last year and the health department has been augmenting bed capacity with oxygen support since then.

“There is 1% occupancy in ICU beds and very few people are on ventilators,” said health secretary J Radhakrishnan. This is due to less serious illness produced by the Omicron variant compared to the globally dominant Delta variant which, when it had peaked, resulted in a shortage of medical grade oxygen across the country.

“Omicron is the reason for the sudden increase in cases. We need not panic but people need to cooperate by following pandemic norms. If they do, there is a possibility for the transmission to rapidly decline too.” Radhakrishnan said since most patients have mild symptoms and are asymptomatic, they have been asked to isolate at home so that oxygen-supported beds are not unnecessarily occupied and can be kept vacant for patients who require hospitalisation.

Tamil Nadu has a total of 185 patients who are infected with the Omicron variant out of which 179 have been discharged. Chennai has the highest number of Omicron cases at 115 – all of them have been discharged following treatment. The directorate of public health and preventive medicine on Monday released new guidelines for testing amid the spread of the new variant.

Kolandaswamy is a member of a committee that was formed during the second wave last year to advise the Tamil Nadu government on preparing for the third wave. “Most of our recommendations to strengthen labs, increase oxygen beds and add ambulances have been accomplished. Hospitals will not see a problem this time and government hospitals especially are better placed,” he said.

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