New COVID-19 infections in Indian cities such as capital New Delhi and Mumbai could peak next week after rising rapidly, experts say, as the country reports the highest number of daily cases since late May.
The 247,417 new infections on Thursday were more than 30 times higher daily cases from a month ago, rising as the more transmissible Omicron variant replaced Delta across the country. Total infections reached 36.32 million, behind only the United States.
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“Our modelling, and those of others, suggests that the big Indian cities should see their peaks in cases close to January 20, while the overall peak in India may be shifted a bit later, to early February,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University near the capital.
Mumbai recorded a high of 20,971 infections last Friday but cases have been coming down since. City officials said the rate of infection was also coming down, with nearly 80 percent of COVID-19 hospital beds vacant.
Delhi reported more than 27,500 infections on Wednesday, close to its all-time high, and its health minister told local media this week infections could start coming down in a few days.
Federal and state health officials say a majority of the infections in the ongoing third wave have been mild, with fewer hospitalisations and deaths than the previous surge in April and May that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The health ministry has said common pain relievers like paracetamol should be enough for people with mild fever due to COVID-19. It has warned, though, against complacency as infections have now started rising in as many as 300 districts from fewer than 80 a week ago.
“The experience from other countries informs us that it is more practical to track/monitor hospitalisations rather than new cases,” said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“Non-pharmaceutical interventions – lockdowns, etc – are increasingly losing their relevance with rapid and inexorable community transmission.”
Many cities and states, including Delhi, have nevertheless imposed night curfews. The capital also locks down fully on weekends, and has closed private offices, schools and restaurants throughout the week.
The latest spike in infections in India comes ahead of elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, home to 220 million people, starting on February 10.
Political parties have been holding massive rallies with tens of thousands of people in attendance over the last few weeks.
Superspreader fears at mass holy dip
The virus surge last year killed more than 200,000 people – experts say the actual figure could be much higher – and was blamed in part on huge political rallies and religious events.
West Bengal state is holding a massive Hindu religious fair this week on an island in the Ganges, while Tamil Nadu has allowed bull-racing festivals to take place next week.
Officials said they expected as many as three million people, including ash-smeared, dreadlocked ascetics, to take a ritual dip in the holy river on Friday, the climax of the annual Gangasagar Mela.
The state government on Thursday appealed to people to get tested for COVID-19, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee urging devotees to wear two masks and not “spit on the island, as it spreads the virus”.
Amitava Nandy, a virologist from the School of Tropical Medicines in Kolkata, said the government “has neither the facilities nor the manpower” to test everyone attending or impose social-distancing norms.
“A stampede-like situation could happen if the police try to enforce social distancing on the river bank,” Nandy said, adding the festival “may end up being the superspreader of the virus”.
India has administered two primary vaccine doses to nearly 70 percent of its 939 million adult population but many still remain unvaccinated. This has worried officials especially as five states hold regional elections.
The country reported 380 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, more than 46 percent of them in the southern state of Kerala not previously recorded. Total deaths have reached 485,035, only behind tolls in the US and Brazil.
Meanwhile, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the government’s apex scientific body, on Monday tweaked its mandatory testing guidelines to ease the strain on the testing infrastructure. Healthy, asymptomatic contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients no longer require mandatory testing.