With Eidul Azha just a few days away, Pakistan on Monday recorded 675 fresh coronavirus cases as the national positivity rate reached 4.61 per cent.
Official data from the National Institute of Health (NIH) showed that two people succumbed to the virus in the last 24 hours. A total of 14,632 tests were conducted in this time period, while 153 patients were under critical care.
In a media briefing today, federal Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel noted that the government was concerned over the increase in the hospitalisation and positivity rate over the last few days. "Our average deaths are between 1.5pc, while the average number of patients on ventilators is five."
He said that most of the infections were of the new Omicron sub-variant BA.5 — which spreads at a faster rate.
"The NCOC (National Command and Operation Centre) is monitoring cases vigilantly and we are prepared for any scenario," the minister assured.
He went on to say that all the provinces had been instructed to set up isolation centres and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had also been engaged in this regard.
Patel said the government was mulling rolling out mass testing, particularly in major cities such as Karachi. Commenting on the Covid surge in the metropolis, he said the positivity rate had dropped in the last few days, adding that this was not the "right time" for imposing a smart lockdown.
"But we have seen that there is still a lack of awareness among the people," he observed.
The minister further highlighted that two religious events, Eidul Azha and Muharram, were around the corner during which the chances of a spike in cases was expected. He urged the public to stay indoors during the Eid holidays.
Later in the day, President Dr Arif Alvi also took to Twitter and stressed on the implementation of Covid SOPs during Eid.
"Follow SOPs and save yourself, your friends and families from sickness. Prevent what you can and let the state worry about other health issues," he added.
Earlier, the government had made masks mandatory in all closed spaces and requested people to avoid hugging or shaking hands with people during the festivities. Further, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also made wearing face masks mandatory on domestic flights.
Low testing skews data as Covid fatigue sets in
Government officials have blamed a decline in testing for skewed figures. They believe that both citizens and the health authorities have started taking the pandemic “as a normal disease” thanks to pandemic fatigue, an expected and natural response to a prolonged public health crisis.
“It’s unfortunate that we put more emphasis on the positivity rate than the number of tests,” Dr Javed Akram, member scientific task force on Covid-19, told Dawn on Sunday.
He said that according to different sampling methods, every fourth or fifth house and shop from the starting point should be included in the data and then all people present there should be tested.
“The size of the sample matters rather than the positivity rate. We should not forget that 30pc of the people never develop symptoms as they are asymptomatic but they continue to spread the virus,” Dr Akram said.
“We need to understand that while Covid’s virulence has been diminished with the passage of time, its transmissibility has increased. So now we can only control the virus by holding massive testing,” he said.
Dr Akram, who is also the vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences, said the media had also stopped giving importance to Covid.
Meanwhile, an official of the Ministry of National Health Services, requesting not to be named, said the number of Covid cases was doubling every five days, hospitalisations had started increasing and deaths had also reappeared.
Against this backdrop, “it’s worrisome that testing beyond Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore shows no signs of improvement despite repeated push”, he said.
He also called shutting down the NCOC a major setback. The previous government disbanded the NCOC, which was overseeing the country’s Covid response, as the infection’s numbers reached the lowest since the start of the outbreak in early 2020.
“The NCOC was practically being run by the army, with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) pushing the media to run stories and campaigns on the pandemic and give awareness to masses that how important it was to get tested, vaccinated and strictly adhere to the standard operating procedures (SOPs),” he said.
With the NCOC gone, the health ministry couldn’t manage the media the way ISPR was doing it, the official said, adding that with the passage of time, citizens started thinking that the pandemic had been eradicated.
Although the centre had now been revived, it was still being chaired by the federal health minister, he said.