WITH EIGHT new coronavirus cases being reported in Kerala on Tuesday, the state government announced several restrictions, including closure of all educational institutions and cinema halls till March 31.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said temple and church festivals which witnesses mass gatherings should be avoided, but rituals can be held in a low key manner.

Of the eight new cases, six are primary contacts of the Italy-returned couple and their son who had tested positive on Sunday. They have been identified as the couple’s parents, aged 91 and 88 years; their daughter (32) and son-in-law (36), who had gone to pick them up from the Kochi airport on February 29; and two family friends, a 63-year-old woman and her 26-year-old daughter who had met the couple at Vadasserikkara in Pathanamthitta district. The couple’s four-year-old granddaughter, who had also gone to the airport, and an 80-year-old relative are also under observation.

The parents of a three-year-old boy who tested positive on Monday — they had travelled to Italy, and reached Kochi on March 7 — have also tested positive.

With this, the total number of cases detected in the state has gone up to 17, including three who were discharged last month. While a total of 1,495 people are under observation in Kerala, 259 have been isolated in hospitals.

State Health Minister K K Shailaja said the two elderly patients who tested positive on Tuesday were critical. “Efforts are on to save their lives,” she said. Saying that more people who were in contact with the Italy-returned couple and their son may test positive, she said most of their primary and secondary contacts could be traced within two days.

Stating that routine vigil and interventions were not enough, Vijayan said: “Along with the state government, people and all systems should work together. As fresh cases are being reported, strong action has to be taken to contain the spread.’’

He said all educational institutions, from nursery to professional colleges, would be closed till March 31. However, while classes and exams will be suspended for students of Classes I to VII across all schools — state, CBSE and ICSE boards — final exams of the higher classes will be held as scheduled.

The order will also apply to private institutions, madrasas, anganwadis and tuition classes, he said.

Vijayan asked people to avoid large gatherings, including at weddings and religious festivals. “This is a time when a large number of festivals are held in Kerala in which scores of people participate. At this juncture, it will be harmful if such gatherings are held as it could help in spread of the virus,” he said.

With the hill temple at Sabarimala set to re-open on March 13, Vijayan said while the rituals can be held, devotees should avoid going there. A PTI report quoted Travancore Devaswom Board president N Vasu as saying: “The pilgrims will not be prevented from coming. But it is our appeal to them to desist from visiting the shrine due to the present circumstances”.

All government related functions have been postponed. Churches have directed parishes to avoid functions with mass gatherings, and only hold small services. While cinema halls will be closed till March 31, the release of new films have been put off.

Vijayan said surveillance would be strengthened at the grassroot level with the help of local self-governing bodies and ASHA workers to identify those with recent travel history to countries affected by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Vijayan has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to order withdrawal of a DGCA circular which said that those coming from Italy or Korea would have to furnish certificates of having tested negative for COVID-19. Saying that “foreign authorities are not ready to test people without symptoms”, he said these people should be tested on arrival instead.

According to an official communication, 26 passengers who had arrived in Kochi from Italy have been shifted to the isolation facility at the government medical college in Kochi after they reported fever.

With 11 of the 14 cases confirmed since March 8 being reported in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, panic has gripped many parts of this Central Kerala region.

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