New Delhi, March 26:

Coronavirus disease cases in India are rising at a rate not seen since May last year, and the daily infections in two states have already hit record highs, indicating that the country’s second wave may be worse than the first wave despite the ongoing vaccination drive.

India on Thursday reported 59,074 new Covid-19 infections, the highest in a single day since October 17, or in 159 days, as the country’s second Covid-19 wave continued to push daily case numbers up to levels not seen since the first wave was brought under control last November.

The daily infection trajectory in two states — Maharashtra and Gujarat — has already surpassed the peaks of their first wave, and a third state, Punjab, is perilously close to crossing its previous peak.

Data analysed by HT also shows that the Indian outbreak has again started spreading geographically. This spread, measured by counting districts reporting at least one new case in the past week, fell to a nine-month low of 447 on February 19. Since then, these districts have been rising again and this number stood at 550 by March 23.

For the week ending March 25, India reported 47,442 new infections every day on average, the highest the seven-day average has touched since October 28. While in absolute numbers, this is the worst the case rate has been in four months, the numbers get more alarming if we look at the rate that this is increasing in. Just seven days ago, the national seven-day average of daily cases was 28,551. This means that in just a week, the rate of new infections have increased by 66%. This is the largest week-on-week case growth witnessed in the country since May 10.

To be sure, an important distinction between the case trajectory in May and today is the sheer volume of cases — in May, there were only around 3,500 new cases across India every day, against the current new infection rate of over 47,000 new cases every day.

This means that the case rate in the second wave is growing much faster than what was seen even when the peak of the first wave was ravaging through August and September. If such a week-on-week growth rate persists, then the second wave may surpass the peak of the first wave in April, shows data.

A report released by the State Bank of India (SBI) on Thursday said that the country’s second wave may peak towards the end of April and the entire duration of the wave may last up to 100 days beginning February 15. In November, a report by SBI research had analysed the first wave and said regions such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Delhi and Tamil Nadu performed poorly.

States breaking records

Pushed by yet another record 35,952 daily cases in Maharashtra on Thursday, the seven-day average of daily infections (or the daily case trajectory) in the state touched 29,213, the highest ever. The previous record for this number was 22,149 cases a day for the week ending September 17, the same week that India’s first wave peaked.

Like Maharashtra, Gujarat also set a new single-day record for new cases on Thursday (1,961) sending the seven-day average of new cases to an all-time high of 1,669 on Thursday. The state had previously seen its case rate touch 1,554 for the week ending November 30.

In Punjab, meanwhile, the case trajectory is hovering close to the peak of the first wave. In the past week, the state has reported 2,503 new cases every day, slightly below its peak of 2,639 for the week ending September 19. This number, however, is rising, and going by the current rate of increase, it appears set to cross its first wave peak by the weekend.

Delhi reported 1,515 new cases on Thursday, highest in the city since December 16, as the Capital’s yet another wave of infections continued to grow. At least six other states and UTs – Tamil Nadu, Chandigarh, Karnataka, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh – are displaying an upward trajectory.

Experts have called on restrictions to be reintroduced on non-essential activities in order to curb the rise in cases. “Large weddings and get-togethers are not essential; going to restaurants and pubs are not essential. These should be restricted now before the cases spread further. Yes, there will be economic consequences but it will save lives,” said Dr GC Khilnani, former head of the department of pulmonology at AIIMS and the chairman of PSRI Institute of Pulmonary and Critical Care

Expanding geographically

For the week ending February 11, there were on average 10,988 new cases every day, the lowest since the country’s first peak in September. It was around this time that the geographical spread of the disease in the country was also the least.

On February 19, only 447 of 707 districts for which daily case data is collated by How India Lives reported at least one new case on the day. This number has increased to 550 by March 23.

To be sure, the expansion in the disease’s spread is not uniform across the country. Jharkhand (which consists of 24 districts), Uttar Pradesh (75), and Uttarakhand (13) – which is seeing a surge in cases with devotees gathering for the upcoming Kumbh Mela – have seen the biggest rise in share of districts reporting at least one case. Here the share of districts reporting at least one case has risen 183%, 116%, and 67%, respectively, since February 19.

The states that have seen no increase in share of districts reporting cases are the ones where the infection was already widespread. Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab, for instance, had all districts reporting cases; and Maharashtra had all but one district reporting cases on average both on February 19 and on March 23.

Epidemiologists stressed on the importance of closely monitoring data to grasp the extent of the second wave.

“We need fresh seroprevalence data from the districts that are seeing surge in cases. In the absence of this, it is difficult to distinguish the extent to which cases can increase in first and second waves. In order to detect second wave, we need track reproductive numbers, test positivity and growth rate of cases constantly,” said Giridhara Babu, head, epidemiology, Indian Institute of Public Health.

(Courtesy Hindustan Times)