Downward trend in Covid cases - State Minister | Sunday Observer

Downward trend in Covid cases - State Minister

12 September, 2021

After weeks of frantic efforts by the Government, health workers and other stakeholders, Sri Lanka managed to put brakes on the alarming rise of Covid-19 cases towards the end of last week. However, health officials say the new infections and fatalities are still high, despite the drop in deaths per day from over 200s to the 170s range.

State Minister of Covid-19 control, Primary Healthcare and Epidemics Sudarshani Fernandopulle in an interview with the Sunday Observer last week said, to maintain this downward trajectory, strict travel restrictions must be continued while low income and daily wage earners need to be protected through special measures. “The relaxing of the lockdown should be slow and gradual to ensure that the painstaking achievements recorded so far are not jeopardised,” she said.

While the Delta variant created chaos in the country, the government received international accolades for accelerating its vaccination drive, deemed the best weapon against the deadly Covid-19. The government showed an impressive progress with over 10 million being fully vaccinated by last week, placing the country above even the wealthiest of nations.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is the official position of the government on the vaccination of schoolchildren?

The President, at the last taskforce meeting, wanted the Health Ministry Technical Committee on vaccines to meet and decide. He said he was ready to procure vaccines but the expert committee must take a decision whether children should be vaccinated or not.

The WHO has not recommended a vaccine for 12-18 year olds so far. Some countries have approved the Pfizer vaccine for this category but there is no unanimous voice among the experts or doctors.

Some paediatricians maintain the vaccine is not necessary or safe for children, especially for young children. Besides, children have not suffered serious complications from Covid-19.

Given that there are different schools of thought among experts and no clear guidelines from the WHO, we are hoping the technical committee will shed some light into this area.

The vast majority of teachers in all age categories have now been vaccinated. It is a positive move towards re-opening schools. But until the daily infections come down to below 1000, I believe we are not in a position to re-open schools.

A team of Consultant Paediatricians have submitted a set of recommendations as a guide to vaccinate schoolchildren. The report was to be taken into consideration at the Covid Task Force headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Friday. It was revealed that school re-opening was also discussed at length at the taskforce in the backdrop of a UNICEF study.]

Q: State and private schools have been closed for nearly 18 months now. A recent study by UNICEF covering India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has shown that a majority of students in Sri Lanka too have been affected by prolonged school closures due to the pandemic. The Education Ministry says the health authorities must take a decision?

We cannot exactly say when schools can re-open since the daily number of Covid-19 cases have not come down. The health and education officials will consider that once the caseload drops to satisfactory levels. There is a slight reduction but that is not enough.

To reach herd immunity, at least 65 % of the above 18 years have to be vaccinated. When we reach this target, we can think of re-opening schools. This decision on schools re-opening will be based on several-factors, not only on the vaccination of children.

Covid-19 positivity rate is currently 25% - 30 %, according to the reports I see. It has to go down further. The Government will have to re-open schools gradually from GCE Advanced Level classes downward. We cannot rush this and put children’s lives in danger.

Q: What is the situation now with state and private hospitals exceeding capacity in Covid-19 wards?

The situation is improving now and the demand for hospital beds for critically ill Covid patients is gradually declining. There is no issue of overcrowding in state and private hospitals right now. One reason is that the hospitals have also expanded their capacity.

There is a regular supply of medical oxygen to hospitals and the patients needing Oxygen has gone down. At one point, the requirement of Oxygen by hospitals shot up to 140 tons per day. This is now in the 70 tons range.

Q: Two consultants, Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema and Dr. Ashoka Gunaratna recently resigned from the Technical Committee of the Health Ministry? What is the controversy and any ongoing efforts to invite them back?

They served on the expert committee on a voluntary basis, in addition to whatever position they are holding at present. The two doctors are doing an excellent service in their stations.

Due to certain ethical issues, on which I would not want to comment right now, they have resigned from the expert committee. Decisions related to the Covid-19 pandemic are taken on highly technical aspects. Therefore, the experts’ advice should not be ignored.

My understanding is that their evidence-based suggestions were overlooked recently when certain decisions were made. Therefore, they have decided to focus their attention on treating patients. We respect their decision to leave.

But undoubtedly, their expertise at the Technical Committee is invaluable. Their experience in managing Covid-19 patients is vital when technical decisions are made on drugs and vaccines. It is a matter for the Health Services Director General to ensure that their services are continued.

Q: What prompted the decision to administer the Pfizer vaccine on the 20-30 year age category in the Hambantota and Matara districts?

In Puttalam, it was agreed that the Pfizer vaccine should be used on people 20 years and above because the majority of the people in the district engage in the fisheries sector or other cross-border trade that involve frequent interaction with Indian counterparts. So there is a possibility of transmitting the deadly variants of Covid 19 from India. But I don’t know the reason why it was to be used on youth in other districts. We have begun vaccinating 20 to 30-year-old youth in the Colombo and Galle districts too. This will be expanded to other districts in the coming weeks and it is expected to be completed by mid October.

Then we will look into vaccinating schoolchildren.

Q: The United States issued a tier 4 ‘Do not travel’ advisory on Sri Lanka on September 7 due to the Covid 19 situation. But this week, we see a decline in the daily Covid 19 caseload after several weeks?

Not just US, several other countries have issued similar advisories. Although there is a decline, the number of new cases and the positivity rate still remains high. The ongoing lockdown has actually helped but more stringent measures are needed, at least for a short period, to bring down the caseload and open the country for travellers.

The Government did not go for a strict lockdown since it obviously had to consider the plight of daily wage earners and farmers, etc. However, if we don’t go for a strict lockdown, with inter-district travel restrictions, the situation will drag on and we will not be able to re-open the country. Restrictions on functions and events must also continue. Relaxing of these restrictions has to be gradual.

Q: Any plans to give a booster shot for the above 60 year-olds?

Medical specialists have recommended a booster shot with Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca for the elderly population who received the Sinopharm vaccine.

It has been observed that while two doses of this vaccine ensured promising immunity levels for people below 60 years, the protection provided to the elderly is less. Therefore, this prospect of a booster shot will be considered once the vaccination of 20 and above are completed.