COVID-19 vaccine will be made available for everyone above 45 years from April 1 as the Centre on Tuesday announced expanding the inoculation drive amid a surge in new cases with the doubling time having sharply reduced since the start of this month.
With the Union Health Ministry highlighting that six states have reported a surge in daily new cases and accounted for nearly 81 per cent of the new infections in the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued new guidelines asking all states and union territories to enhance proportion of RT-PCR tests, strictly enforce 'test-track-treat' protocol and speed up the pace of vaccination to cover all priority groups.
Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu collectively account for 80.90 per cent of the 40,715 cases reported in a span of 24 hours, the Health Ministry said in its daily update of the COVID-19 situation in the country.
The countrywide vaccination drive was rolled out on January 16 with healthcare workers getting inoculated while frontline workers began getting the shots from February 2.
The next phase of the world's largest vaccination drive commenced on March 1 for those who are over 60 years of age and for people aged 45 and above with specified co-morbid conditions.
Briefing reporters on the decisions taken by the Union Cabinet after its meeting, Union minister Prakash Javadekar said now even people without comorbidities who are more that 45 years of age can get vaccinated.
"Today after discussion and on the advice of the task force and scientists, it was decided that from April 1 the vaccine will open for everybody above 45 years of age," he said.
"Our appeal is that all above 45 years should take vaccine as early as possible, that will provide them the shield against coronavirus and they should register for getting vaccinated."
Javadekar said the Cabinet also decided that the second dose of the vaccine can be taken between four and eight weeks, on the advice of doctors.
It was allowed to be taken between four to six weeks earlier, but scientists have now said that taking the second dose between four and eight weeks gives improved results.
He said till this day, 4.85 crore doses of the vaccine against COVID-19 have been administered with more than 32 lakh people getting the jabs in the last 24 hours, which was the highest single-day vaccination so far.
Vaccines are available in enough number and there is no scarcity and the supply chains and supply line is intact, he said.
To a question on rise in COVID cases in some states, he said the central government is in touch with them and there will be effective management.
"We hope that virus would not be allowed to spread."
A statistical graph released by the Union health ministry showed that the doubling time of the COVID cases has reduced from 504.4 days on March 1 to 202.3 days on March 23.
Doubling time is the number of days required for cases in an epidemic to double. A lower doubling time suggests a faster spread of infection.
The MHA noted in its guidelines that while the COVID vaccination drive is proceeding smoothly, the pace is uneven across different states and UTs and, the slow pace of vaccination in some states and UTs is a 'matter of concern'.
The guidelines said the vaccination in the present scenario is critical to break the chain of transmission and hence all state and UT governments should rapidly step up the pace to cover all priority groups in an expeditious manner.
A total of 40,715 coronavirus infections were reported in a day, taking the nationwide COVID-19 tally on Tuesday to 1,16,86,796, while the number of active cases registered an increase for the 13th day in a row and was put at 3,45,377, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated at 8 am.
India's total active caseload is rising after touching its lowest mark in mid-February, the ministry said.
10 states -- Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Haryana and Rajasthan -- are displaying an upward trajectory in the daily new COVID-19 cases, it said.
After over a four month gap, Karnataka reported more than 2,000 newcases, the state health departmnt said in Bengaluru.
Three states -- Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab -- accounted for 75.15 per cent of total active cases in the country.
Maharashtra alone accounted for 62.71 per cent of these cases.
India's cumulative recoveries surged to 1,11,81,253, with 29,785 recoveries being registered in a span of 24 hours.
Besides, 199 deaths were reported in a span of 24 hours.
Six states accounted for 80.4 per cent of the daily deaths, with Maharashtra and Punjab each reporting 58 casualties.
Kerala and Chhattisgarh followed with 12 deaths each.
The Union health ministry also said that the total number of cases with the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil variants of SARS-CoV-2 in the country has reached 795.
From 400 cases reported on March 18, the infections by mutant strains have increased to 795 in the country, it said.
The ministry also said that no new strain of COVID-19 virus has been detected in Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab, and the surge in infections witnessed now in these states is due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is driving the pandemic since last year.
Minister of State for Health Ashwini Choubey in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha said that after the detection of variants of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, the Centre put in a surveillance mechanism for international travelers and in the community to detect these known variants.
The UK variant of SARS-CoV-2 was first reported in India on December 29.
In Punjab, 81 per cent of the 401 samples sent by the government for genome sequencing have tested positive for the UK variant, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said.
Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain took to Twitter to say that the AAP government has urged the Centre to allow everyone aged above 18 to take the COVID-19 vaccine as such a step will set an example for the entire world.
Issuing fresh guidelines for April, the MHA said keeping in view the fresh surge in COVID-19 infections, the new positive cases, detected as a result of intensive testing, need to be isolated or quarantined at the earliest and provided timely treatment.
All contacts have to be traced at the earliest, and similarly isolated and quarantined, it said.
The MHA said based on the positive cases and tracking of their contacts, containment zones shall be carefully demarcated by the district authorities at the micro level taking into consideration the guidelines prescribed by the Union health ministry.
The states and UTs where the proportion of RT-PCR tests is less should rapidly increase it to reach the prescribed level of 70 per cent or more of total tests.
The MHA said the main focus of the guidelines is to consolidate the substantial gains achieved in containing the spread of COVID-19, which was visible in the sustained decline in the number of active cases, continuously for about 5 months.
It is also emphasised that in order to ensure that the resumption of activities is successful and to fully overcome the pandemic, there is need to strictly follow the prescribed containment strategy, and strictly observe the guidelines and SOPs issued by the home and health ministries.