New Delhi: The Centre on Saturday asked states and Union territories to step up vaccination and open up activities in a "carefully calibrated" manner, as it expressed concern about crowding in markets and other places following the easing of curbs and an expert warned that the third wave can hit India in six to eight weeks if COVID-appropriate behaviour is not followed.
States and UTs have also been urged to ensure the "extremely important" five-fold strategy of COVID-appropriate behaviour, test-track-treat and vaccination is followed to prevent a relapse.
India was hit by a brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April and May, claiming a large number of lives and forcing almost all states and UTs to imposed lockdown or other curbs.
"With a decline in the number of active cases, many states and UTs have started relaxing restrictions However, easing of restrictions in some states, has led to resumption of crowding of people in markets etc., without adherence to the norms of COVID-appropriate behaviour," Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said in a communication to all states and Union Territories (UTs).
Bhalla said while the opening up of activities after decline in cases is essential, states and UTs must ensure that the whole process is "carefully calibrated".
It is, therefore essential to ensure that complacency does not set in, and there is no let-up in adhering to COVID-appropriate behaviour, while opening up activities, the home secretary said.
"If COVID-appropriate behaviour is not followed, the third wave can happen in six to eight weeks. We need to work aggressively to prevent another large wave till vaccination kicks in," AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria told PTI.
Earlier, India's epidemiologists had indicated that a third wave of COVID-19 is inevitable and is likely to start from September-October.
Until a sizeable number of the population are vaccinated, COVID-appropriate behaviour needs to be followed aggressively, Guleria said and stressed on the need for stricter surveillance and area-specific lockdowns in case of a significant surge.
Bhalla also said that vaccination against COVID-19, in the present scenario, is critical to breaking the chain of transmission.
Therefore, all state and UT governments should step up the pace of vaccination, to cover maximum number of people in an expeditious manner, he said.
"While opening up, it would be extremely important to follow the five-fold strategy of COVID appropriate behaviour, test-track-treat and vaccination," he said.
The home secretary said regular monitoring of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour is required to prevent relapse.
To reiterate, COVID-appropriate behaviour includes mandatory use of masks, hand hygiene, social distancing and also proper ventilation of closed spaces, he said.
Bhalla said to contain the spread of the infection on a sustainable basis, it is necessary to continue the strategy of test-track-treat. It may especially be ensured that the testing rate does not come down, he said.
As the situation is dynamic, a close watch needs to be kept on early signs of a surge in active cases or high positivity rates, he said.
A system should be in place at the micro-level to ensure that whenever cases rise in a smaller place, it gets checked there itself, through local containment measures as per the existing guidelines issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
"I, therefore, urge you to issue directions to district and all other authorities concerned, to keep a close watch on the situation, while activities are opened in a cautious manner, and to scrupulously ensure that there is no complacency in adhering to COVID -appropriate behaviour and in the test-track-treat-vaccinate strategy," Bhalla said in his communication.
With 60,753 new COVID-19 cases being reported in a day, India's total tally rose to 2,98,23,546, while the number of active cases stand at 7,60,019, the lowest in 74 days, according to Union health ministry data updated on Saturday.
The death toll climbed to 3,85,137 with 1,647 fresh fatalities and active cases comprise 2.55 percent of the total infections, while the national COVID-19 recovery rate has improved to 96.16 percent, the data updated at 8 AM showed.
India had reported more than 88.82 lakh coronavirus infections and 1,17,247 fatalities in May alone during the raging second wave of COVID-19, making it the worst month of the pandemic.
The daily cases peaked on May 7 when the country registered 4,14,188 infections in a span of 24 hours, while daily deaths were the highest on May 19 with India reporting 4,529 fatalities due to COVID-19.
The active cases had peaked on May 10 at 37,45,237.
There is already a view that a third wave due to Delta variant has hit the UK, where cases have again surged in recent weeks.
Professor Adam Finn, who advises on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the BBC that the country is now in a firm race between the vaccines and the Delta variant first identified in India.
"It's going up, perhaps we can be a little bit optimistic it's not going up any faster, but nevertheless it's going up, so this third wave is definitely underway, Finns said.
The UK recorded a further 10,476 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, showing a steady rise in the number over the past few weeks.
It had led UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay a planned end to all lockdown measures on Monday by four weeks, with July 19 now the expected timeline.