COVID Cases in Mumbai Down 70%, Slowing in Other Parts of India

COVID-19 cases in Mumbai declined by nearly 70% in the past week, from 11,000 daily cases to fewer than 2,000 a day in India's financial capital.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported an average of 340,000 daily cases in India to below 300,000 in the last week.

With active cases over 3.6 million, hospitals are still swamped by patients. With over 24 million confirmed cases and 270,000 deaths, India's caseload is the second highest after the U.S.

But experts believe that the country's steeply rising curve may finally be flattening—even if the plateau is a high one.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Mumbai Covid Cases Start Declining
A health worker takes a nasal swab sample of a Kashmiri man to test for COVID-19 in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on May 11, 2021. A dip in the number of coronavirus cases in Mumbai is offering a glimmer of hope for India, which is suffering through a surge of infections. Dar Yasin/Associated Press

Izhaar Hussain Shaikh, an ambulance driver in Mumbai, drove about 70 patients to the hospital last month. Two weeks into May, he'd carried only 10 patients.

"We used to be so busy before, we didn't even have time to eat," Shaikh said.

The success was credited to a well-enforced lockdown and vigilant authorities, along with testing and other resources being able to make it to the more populated areas of India.

Even the capital of New Delhi is seeing faint signs of improvement as infections slacken after weeks of tragedy and desperation playing out in overcrowded hospitals and crematoriums and on the streets.

It is still too early to say things are improving, with Mumbai and New Delhi representing only a sliver of the overall situation.

For one, drops in the national caseload, however marginal, largely reflect falling infections in a handful of states with big populations and/or high rates of testing. So the nationwide trends represent an incomplete and misleading picture of how things are faring across India as a whole, experts say.

"There will always be smaller states or cities where things are getting worse, but this won't be as clear in the national caseload numbers," said Murad Banaji, a mathematician modeling India's cases.

Given India's size and population of nearly 1.4 billion, what's more important to track is a cascade of peaks at different times instead of a single national one, experts said.

"It seems like we are getting desensitized by the numbers, having gotten used to such high ones," said Bhramar Mukherjee, a University of Michigan biostatistician tracking the virus in India. "But a relative change or drop in overall cases does not diminish the magnitude of the crisis by any means."

Experts also warn that another reason for an apparent peak or plateau in cases could be that the virus has outrun India's testing capabilities. As the virus jumps from cities to towns to villages, testing has struggled to keep pace, stirring fears that a rural surge is unfurling even as data lags far behind.

Combating the spread in the countryside, where health infrastructure is scarce and where most Indians live, will be the biggest challenge. "The transmission will be slower and lower, but it can still exact a big toll," said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

Even in big cities, testing has become increasingly harder to access. Labs are inundated and results are taking days, leading many to start treating symptoms before confirming a coronavirus infection. In the last month, cases have more than tripled and reported deaths have gone up six times—but testing has only increased by 1.6 times, said Mukherjee. Meanwhile, vaccinations have plummeted by 40%.

One of the biggest concerns for experts is that India may never know the full death toll from the virus, with fatalities undercounted on such a scale that reporters are finding more answers at crematoriums than official state tallies.

But while authorities previously appeared to struggle to even acknowledge the scale, they're now taking action.

"Before, there just wasn't a focused attention. But now everyone is focused on containing it as much as possible," Reddy said.

Hit by a staggering shortage of beds, oxygen and other medical supplies, many states are now adding thousands of beds a week, converting stadiums into COVID-19 hospitals, and procuring as much equipment as possible. States across India are preparing to be hit by another torrent of infections and even courts have intervened to help untangle oxygen supplies.

Aid from overseas, while still facing bureaucratic hurdles, is starting to trickle in. More than 11,000 oxygen concentrators, nearly 13,000 oxygen cylinders and 34 million vials of antivirals have been sent to different states.

Still, help is arriving too slowly in many districts as new infections surface in every single region, even the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean.

Even though Mumbai looks as if it might have turned a corner, surrounding Maharashtra state is still seeing around 40,000 daily cases.

"You have a really, really complicated and mixed picture," said Banaji, the mathematician.

But in at least one Mumbai hospital, "the burden is 30% to 40% less than before," said Dr. Om Shrivastav, a doctor and member of Maharashtra's COVID-19 task force.

Already, the city and state are bracing for more infections. A court told Maharashtra this week to continue updating and ramping up measures as authorities look into getting vaccines from abroad to fill a domestic shortage.

"We are making sure we're not caught napping. In the event this happens again, we're going to do better," Shrivastav said.

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India Health Virus
Medical staff and volunteers wear personal protective equipment (PPE) gear while walking through a market for a door-to-door medical screening to fight against the spread of the COVID-19, in Mumbai on June 17, 2020. Indranil Mukherjee/Getty Images