New restrictions, including nighttime curfews, imposed in Maharashtra as other states also report a rise in cases.
India has warned that a breach of guidelines on testing and other measures to contain the coronavirus could worsen a recent spurt in infections in many states, particularly after it detected several variants.
“Any laxity in implementing stringent measures to curb the spread, especially in view of new strain of virus…could compound the situation,” the health ministry on Wednesday said in a statement that singled out nine states and a federal territory.
Nearly a month after the health minister declared that COVID-19 had been contained, states such as Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south have reported a surge in cases, as reluctance grows over mask-wearing and social distancing norms.
India’s tally of infections, which stands at 11.03 million, swelled in the past 24 hours by 13,742, health ministry data shows, while deaths rose by a two-week high of 104 to 156,567.
Actual infections have inched closer to 300 million in the country of 1.35 billion people, according to a random study of antibodies done by the government.
Indian officials on Tuesday said mutated versions of coronavirus were not responsible for a surge in cases in two states, a potential relief for a country where mask-wearing and physical distancing have largely disappeared.
A top government health official confirmed that two mutations – N440K and E484Q – had been present for a long time in those two states as well as elsewhere in the country and overseas. Authorities have also found the UK variant in 187 people in India, the South African one in six and one case of the Brazilian mutation.
“There is no reason today for us to believe, on the basis of scientific information, that these are responsible for the upsurge of the outbreak,” Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government committee on vaccines, told a news conference on Tuesday.
“We are constantly watching the behaviour of mutations in our country.”
Though cases have come down sharply since a September peak, Paul said India was still vulnerable, especially given that even previously badly affected cities like Pune in Maharashtra were getting hit again.
He urged people to wear masks and avoid social events – guidelines openly flouted by both federal and state ministers.
The northern state of Punjab, which has also seen a rise in cases, said indoor gatherings would be restricted to 100 and outdoor to 200 from March 1. District heads have also been permitted to decide on night curfews in hotspots, and testing will be increased, the state’s chief minister said on Twitter.
Punjab is one of the worst-performing states when it comes to vaccinating their healthcare workers, according to the federal government.
Maharashtra and Kerala account for 75 percent of India’s current active cases of about 147,000, and both states have seen a sudden rise in new infections in recent days, fuelling calls for a faster rollout of vaccines.
India has administered nearly 12 million vaccine doses to its health and frontline workers since beginning the campaign in mid-January, a pace that will have to be increased sharply to meet the target of reaching 300 million people by August.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India would very soon start immunising people over 50 and those with medical conditions, with greater involvement from private hospitals. Government hospitals are now running approximately 80 percent of vaccination sites.
The government has recently come under pressure to expand coverage at home given the world’s largest vaccine maker has exported COVID-19 shots to more than two dozen countries.
India is using a vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, and another licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Other vaccines are in the queue, including Russia’s Sputnik V and products from Cadila Healthcare and Novavax.