Widespread mask use and data-driven social distancing measures in India may help prevent over 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths in India by December 1, according to a modelling study which shows the disease will continue to pose a major public health threat in the country.
The study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in the US suggests that there is an opportunity to further limit the toll of COVID-19 in India.
It highlights the critical need for people to comply with face mask use, social distancing, and other COVID-19 prevention guidelines as advised by the public health authorities.
"India's epidemic is far from over, as a large proportion of the population is still susceptible," IHME Director, Christopher Murray, said in a statement.
"In fact, our modelling shows there is a wide range of potential outcomes, depending on the actions that governments and individuals take today, tomorrow, and into the near future. Mask-wearing and social distancing are crucial to mitigate the spread of the virus," Murray explained.
Reacting to the findings of the modelling study, Gautam Menon, Professor, Departments of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University in Haryana said it is certainly true that mask wearing and distancing measures will significantly slow the progress of the disease while protecting vulnerable populations.
"My first view is that the IHME model predicts a peak in infections only by early to mid-December, peak numbers of close to 6 million new infections per day and total deaths of about 5,00,000 in the 'no intervention' scenario," said Menon.
However, he noted that these numbers appear inflated compared to other estimates and models which suggest a peak that should happen well before mid-December.
"Given that, the estimate of lives saved (in the study) may be on the excessive side," Menon noted.
The researchers in the IHME study noted that India's response to COVID-19 has produced some significant successes that highlight the opportunity to limit the pandemic's toll in the country.
Giving the example of some urban areas, including Delhi, they explained that containment measures which include intensive contact tracing, widespread testing, mask-wearing, and social distancing mandates have helped reduce the spread of the virus.
Their modelling study found that, in the best-case scenario, India can expect approximately 291,145 total COVID-19 deaths by December 1, up from 60,000 in late August.
This scenario assumes that face mask usage increases to near-universal (95 per cent) levels and that six-week, state-level lockdowns are re-imposed if the daily death rate exceeds 8 per million in the states.
On the other hand, if lockdown restrictions continue to ease up and face mask usage remains at current levels, India can expect approximately 492,380 total deaths by December 1, according to the study.
In this scenario, the researchers said, 13 states would each have over 10,000 total COVID-19 deaths by that time, while currently only Maharashtra has crossed this threshold.
"India is at a tipping point. If hospitals in those states are unable to accommodate everyone needing COVID-19 care, the result will be more deaths and greater long-term harm to state and local economies," Murray said.
The researchers said until there is a widely available vaccine against COVID-19, much of India's population remains susceptible to the disease.
"Monitoring trends state-by-state, encouraging mask use, continuing social distancing and hygiene precautions, and using state-level or district-level lockdowns if needed can help save lives and minimise the impact of the pandemic on India's health and economy," the researchers said.