Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

New COVID-19 infections in Indian cities such as the capital New Delhi and Mumbai could peak next week after increasing 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 of a month ago, and increased as the more transmissible Omicron variant Delta replaced across the country. Total infections reached 36.32 million, just behind the United States.

“Our modeling, and that of others, suggests that the major Indian cities should see their highs in cases near January 20, while the overall highs in India may be shifted a little later, to early February,” says Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University near the capital.

A health worker takes a swab sample from a woman in MumbaiA health worker takes a swab sample from a woman during a rapid antigen test campaign for coronavirus disease at a railway station in Mumbai [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

Mumbai recorded a peak of 20,971 infections last Friday, but cases have declined since then. City officials said the infection rate is also declining, with nearly 80 percent of COVID-19 hospital beds empty.

Delhi reported more than 27,500 infections on Wednesday, close to its all-time high, and its health minister told local media this week that infections could begin to subside within days.

Federal and state health officials say a majority of the infections in the ongoing third wave were mild, with fewer hospitalizations and deaths than the previous surge in April and May that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The Ministry of Health said common painkillers like paracetamol should be enough for people with mild fever due to COVID-19. However, it has warned against complacency, as infections have now started to increase in as many as 300 districts from less than 80 a week ago.

“The experience of other countries informs us that it is more practical to detect / monitor hospitalizations rather than new cases,” said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Center for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi .

“Non-pharmaceutical interventions – restrictions, etc. – are increasingly losing their relevance with rapid and relentless community transfer.”

A healthcare worker takes in a COVID-19 test swab sample from a man in Delhi, IndiaA healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a man while others wait at a market area in the old quarters of Delhi [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Many cities and states, including Delhi, nonetheless have established night-out rules. The capital also closes completely on weekends and has closed private offices, schools and restaurants throughout the week.

The latest rise in infections in India occurs elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, home to 220 million people, which begins on February 10.

Political parties have held massive rallies in recent weeks with tens of thousands of people attending.

Super-distributor fears at mass holy dip

The outbreak of the virus last year killed more than 200,000 people – experts say the actual figure could be much higher – and was partly blamed on major political rallies and religious events.

West Bengal state holds a massive Hindu religious fair this week on an island in the Ganges, while Tamil Nadu allowed bullfighting to take place next week.

Hindu pilgrims arrive at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of BengalHindu pilgrims arrive at the confluence of the Ganges River and the Bay of Bengal, before Makar Sankranti festival, in the eastern state of West Bengal [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Officials said they expect as many as three million people, including asbestos-smeared, dreadlocked ascetics, to take a ritual dive into the sacred river on Friday, the climax of the annual Gangasagar Mela.

The state government on Thursday called on people to be tested for COVID-19, with Prime 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 Medicine in Kolkata, said the government “does not have the facilities or the manpower” to test everyone who attends it or impose social distancing norms.

“A rush-hour situation could happen if the police try to enforce social distances on the riverbank,” Nandy said, adding the festival “could eventually be the super-distributor of the virus.”

A man dressed as Hindu lord ShivaA man dressed as a Hindu god, Lord Shiva, walks for alms of pilgrims at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal in West Bengal [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

India has administered two primary vaccine doses to nearly 70 percent of its 939 million adult population, but many remain unvaccinated. This has worried officials, especially as five states are holding regional elections.

The country reported 380 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, more than 46 percent of them in the southern state of Kerala that had not been recorded before. Total deaths reached 485,035, just behind tolls in the US and Brazil.

Meanwhile, the Indian Council for Medical Research, the government’s top scientific body, on Monday amended its mandatory testing guidelines to ease the pressure on the testing infrastructure. Healthy, asymptomatic contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients no longer require mandatory testing.

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