India's richest state suffers surge in COVID-19 cases


A health worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) collects a swab sample from a woman during a rapid antigen testing campaign for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a railway station platform in Mumbai, India, March 17, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

MUMBAI (Reuters) - New coronavirus infections in India rose by the most in more than three months as a second wave of the epidemic gathered momentum, with Maharashtra, the country's richest state, accounting for two-thirds of the latest daily tally.

Home to India's commercial capital Mumbai, the western state reported 35,871 new cases in the past 24 hours, and the fast spreading contagion in major industrial areas raised risks of companies' production being disrupted.

India's total cases stood at 11.47 million, the highest after the United States and Brazil. Deaths rose by 172 to 159,216, according to health ministry data released on Thursday.

The country's first wave peaked in September at nearly 100,000 cases a day, with daily infections hitting a low of just over 9,000 early last month.

Cases have been rising in Maharashtra since the reopening of most economic activities in February. Mumbai's suburban trains, which carry millions of people daily, also resumed services.

The state, of 112 million people, ordered a fresh lock down in some districts and put curbs on cinemas, hotels and restaurants until the end of the month after infections rose to a multi-month high earlier this week

New cases have more than doubled in the past two weeks in Maharashtra’s industrial towns such as Pune, Aurangabad, Nashik and Nagpur, known for their automobile, pharmaceutical and textile factories.

"We have asked industries there to operate with minimum manpower as much possible," said a senior Maharashtra government official, declining to be named as he was not authorised to talk to the media. "Most of the IT companies have allowed their employees to work from home."

Hospital beds and special COVID-19 facilities were filling up fast, especially in Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune, said another state official.

Earlier this month, more than 80% of oxygen and intensive-care beds in Maharashtra were unoccupied.

Half a dozen other states, such as Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, have also seen a rise in cases this month. The government has blamed crowding and a reluctance to wear masks for the rise.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday asked state leaders to quickly increase testing and expand vaccination to "stop the emerging second peak of corona".

India has administered more than 36.5 million vaccine doses since starting its immunisation drive in the middle of January.

In neighbouring Pakistan, 3,495 people tested positive in the past 24 hours, the most daily infections since early December. Total cases rose past 615,000. Deaths rose by 61 to 13,717.

Pakistani minister Asad Umar said on Twitter that hospital beds were becoming occupied fast, warning of stricter curbs if rules were not followed.

"The new strain spreads faster and is more deadly,” he said on Twitter, referring to the UK variant of the virus that has been found in Pakistan.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav, Rama Venkat and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Jacqueline Wong & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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