Amid the resurge in COVID-19 infections, the Haridwar district administration and Kumbh Mela authorities, on Tuesday, March 23, ramped up the preparations to tackle the spread of COVID-19 infections during Mahakumbh.
The development came after the Union health secretary wrote to the state chief secretary expressing concern over a potential spike in COVID-19 cases during Mahakumbh and directed the Uttarakhand government to take strict measures to minimise the spread of COVID-19 infection.
The administration continues to face challenges due to the massive number of pilgrims expected to arrive during the world's largest religious gathering, which is scheduled to take place from April 1 to April 30. The state health department had decided to increase the number of tests conducted during the Mahakumbh Mela. However, a government order is yet to be issued, Hindustan Times reported.
The department would focus on devotees from states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, where the number of cases has been increasing significantly in the past few days.
According to Dr SK Jha, Haridwar's chief medical officer, "In response to the Centre's directive to increase COVID-19 precautions, the district health department had decided to increase the number of tests in the Mela area by enlisting private pathology firms."
Jha said that to maintain maximum random testing of devotees during the peak of Mahakumbh, particularly during the Shahi Snans, they have collaborated with seven private pathology companies. He added that the administration had constructed a 1,500-bed COVID-19 facility to isolate devotees who test positive for the virus.
"Apart from this, six temporary hospitals are also being built in the entire Mahakumbh area. Ashrams and medical colleges in Haridwar would also be utilised to ensure adequate beds for COVID-19 isolation during the fair, which is expected to witness millions of devotees, especially during the Shahi Snans," he added.
Dr AS Sengar, Mahakumbh nodal health officer, said that if people were found to be infected with the virus while using public transportation, they would be isolated in COVID-19 care centres following guidelines, apart from that if a person arrives in a private vehicle and tests positive, they would be returned.
The authorities will provide masks to all pilgrims free of cost. Apart from that, sanitiser dispensers will also be installed. "Regular sanitisation of Ganga ghats and water tap-soap facility for washing of hands is also being ensured by the Mela administration," Sengar informed.
On March 11, during the first Shahi Snaan of Mahakumbh, nearly twenty health department teams were formed to perform random checks on RT-PCR negative reports of pilgrims and tourists staying in hotels, lodges, ashrams, Dharamshala, and guest houses.
In light of the recent increase in COVID-19 positive cases, the administration held a meeting with Dharamshala, hotels, tour-travel associations, and traders on Monday to examine COVID-19 prevention measures. Form now on, the authorities would be checking hotels, lodges and Dharmashalas daily to ensure that they are adhering to the COVID guidelines.
Experts Question Easing Restrictions
Earlier, Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat had decided to relax COVID-19 related restrictions in the Mahakumbh and said pilgrims would not be expected to bring a Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) COVID-19 test report. According to Rawat, there should be no impediments as Kumbh happens once in 12 years.
On the other hand, experts doubt the administration's assertions about the COVID-19 precautions, including the number of tests performed daily in Haridwar.
"As far as the letter from the Union health secretary to the state chief secretary is concerned, it suggests that the state has informed him that the government is conducting about 55,000 Covid-19 tests daily, which is difficult to believe," said social activist Anoop Nautiyal, who had been monitoring the pandemic situation in the state since the lockdown.
Nautiyal said, according to the daily health bulletin released by the state health department, between March 1 to 21, a total number of 1 lakh tests were conducted, with approximately 5,000 tests performed each day, which is significantly less than what the state claims before the Centre.
The state should ensure adequate facilities to handle the outbreak's spread; otherwise, given the state's limited resources, the situation may become extremely dangerous, he added.