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India's COVID tally passes 25 million; cyclone complicates efforts in Modi's state

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AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) -India total COVID-19 caseload surged past 25 million on Tuesday as a powerful cyclone complicated the health crisis in one of the states where the disease is spreading most quickly.

COVID-19 tests were administered to 200,000 people evacuated from coastal districts of the western state of Gujarat before the cyclone struck late on Monday and efforts were being made to try to limit any spread of infections.

“Masks have been arranged for people shifted to shelter homes,” said Sandip Sagale, a top official in Ahmedabad, the main city in Gujarat.

“Efforts are also made to maintain social distancing.”

India’s total tally of coronavirus cases rose past the 25 million mark with 263,533 new infections over the past 24 hours, while deaths from COVID-19 rose by a record 4,329.

Only the United States has had more cases, or a worse single day death toll, when it lost 5,444 people on Feb. 12. But whereas the epidemic peaked months ago in the United States, there is no certainty that India’s infections have.

Though the official count shows new infections subsiding, there are fears that the new, highly infectious B.1.617 variant, first found in India, is running out of control and many cases, particularly in rural areas, are going unreported due to lack of testing.

India’s total caseload since the virus first struck over a year ago, stands at 25.23 million, while the death toll is at 278,719, according to health ministry data.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat had suffered a 30% increase in infections since May 2, while the total number of vaccinations administered in the state last week was just 1.1 million – half the total of a month earlier.

The storm complicated efforts to tackle the coronavirus in the state as vaccinations were suspended for two days, while hospitals awaited back-up generators to keep power running and additional oxygen supplies.

But Aayush Oak, a top official in Amreli, the district hardest hit by the cyclone, said preparations had paid off.

“We had already shifted COVID patients from areas closer to the coast to hospitals in other places three days back and did not need to shift a single patient more. There is no disruption of oxygen supply to any hospital,” Oak said.

Sunaina Tomar, energy secretary in Gujarat state, said 81 hospitals designated for coronavirus patients had faced disruption to power supplies, along with 16 other hospitals, and 19 oxygen refilling plants.

“Power supply has been restored to 29 COVID hospitals, 12 other hospitals, and six oxygen units, and work to restore supply is going on at a war footing at other places,” she said in a statement.

‘STRUGGLING’ VACCINATIONDRIVE

In neighbouring Maharashtra state, which was sideswiped by the cyclone on Monday, 1,000 coronavirus deaths were reported overnight – the worst toll nationwide. The infection rate in Maharashtra has soared 15% in the last two weeks, government data showed.

The pace of vaccination in Maharashtra has fallen 30% since peaking in early April, according to data from the government’s Co-WIN portal.

Since April 1, 269 doctors have died of COVID-19, 78 of them in the mostly rural state of Bihar, according to data released by the Indian Medical Association.

“The surge has been very devastating,” Jayesh Lele, secretary general of the IMA, told Reuters.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, rural areas have been severely hit, as healthcare systems have struggled to cope.

Incensed by scarce testing and tracing, a state court remarked on Monday the situation was turning to “God’s mercy” and hurtling towards a “third wave”.

“If this is the state of affairs of five districts, one can guess where we are leading people of this state to, i.e. (a) third wave of the pandemic,” the state’s Allahabad High Court said.

Chandrakant Lahariya, a public policy and health systems expert, said in the Hindustan Times newspaper that India’s vaccine policy urgently needed a reset.

“For six weeks now, India’s vaccination drive has been struggling. How long must one wait before acknowledging that what was planned is not working?

“Part of the problem seems to be the fact that there is political decision-making in the areas that are purely technical. The political leadership should give a free hand to technical experts to decide and implement new strategies.”

India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, halted exports a month ago after donating or selling more than 66 million doses, and government sources told Reuters it was unlikely to resume major exports of vaccines until at least October to prioritise domestic needs.

India was one of the countries likely to benefit from U.S. President Joe Biden announcement on Monday that his administration would send at least 20 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad by the end of June.

(Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Rama Venkat in Bengaluru, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai, Neha Arora and Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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