Pitching for efforts on a war footing to identify and isolate COVID-19 hotspots, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday hinted at a "staggered" exit from the ongoing lockdown after the 21-day period ends on April 14 while the nationwide tally of confirmed cases of the deadly virus infection rose by more than 500 to cross 2,500 with at least 76 deaths.
With a huge congregation of Tablighi Jamaat in the national capital's Nizamuddin area last month emerging as the biggest hotspot of the coronavirus outbreak, authorities said nearly 9,000 people -- members of the Jamaat and their primary contacts -- have been identified and quarantined across the country. This includes, 1,306 foreigners associated with the Jamaat.
The figures announced by various states, including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Telangana, showed at least 556 positive cases getting detected on Thursday itself -- taking the total to 2,507. At least 17 more deaths were reported too during the day.
A majority of the new cases are linked to the congregation, officials said.
In the total tally, about 400 COVID-19 positive cases have been found whose epidemiological linkage can be traced to the Tablighi Jamaat cluster, said the Union health ministry, but it asserted there was no evidence to widespread community transmission and 20 existing and 22 potential hotspots have been identified across the country.
A home ministry official said while 9,000 Tablighi Jamaat members and their primary contacts have been quarantined till now across the country due to "massive efforts" to check the outbreak, the Centre has written to all states and union territories that "the lockdown measures should be implemented in letter and spirit".
Prime Minister Modi, who will share a video message with people on Friday morning, in the meantime interacted with chief ministers through a video conference and told them to focus on COVID-19 containment measures -- testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine -- and said it was imperative to work on a war footing, identify hotspots, encircle them and ensure that the infection does not spread out.
According to an official statement, Modi also pitched for formulating a common exit strategy to ensure "staggered re-emergence of the population" once the 21-day nationwide lockdown ends on April 14.
Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said the prime minister has urged states to manage the coronavirus crisis at the district level.
In the meantime, sporadic attacks on doctors, social workers and police personnel also came to the fore raising concerns over their safety and prompting warnings by authorities.
Seven persons were arrested for the alleged attack on health workers in Madhya Pradesh's Indore city, who had gone there to quarantine relatives and acquaintances of a COVID-19 patient but were attacked with stones by an unruly mob leaving two women doctors injured. A video of the attack went viral on social media.
Authorities also continued to take action against those violating the lockdown, which entered its ninth day on Thursday.
Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to all chief secretaries of the states and union territories to take action against those violating the lockdown or making false claims under the Indian Penal Code and the Disaster Management Act.
Bhalla said those violating these laws can be punished with jail term of up to two years and fine.
However, hopes of the lockdown getting removed, at least partially, after its 21-day period rose further after Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said airlines are free to allow ticket booking for flights after April 14. He also said resumption of international flights will be considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on which countries they are coming from, after the 21-day lockdown ends.
Separately, Air India also said it has got approvals from Indian and Chinese authorities to operate cargo flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong to get medical supplies.
At the same time, several states including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala reported significant rise in the number of positive cases.
In Maharashtra, at least 81 more tested positive during the day, taking its tally to 416, while two more patients succumbed to the infection increasing the toll to 19.
The death of a COVID-19 patient from Mumbai's Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia, sparked fear of its spread in the highly congested area. The Union Health Ministry said contact tracing and testing as per protocol is being conducted in the area. Several small-scale industries and workshops of leather goods, pottery and textiles operate from the slum colony spread over 613 acres.
Officials in the state also said around 1,400 persons from Maharashtra attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi and 1,300 of them have been traced. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said no social events including religious congregations would be allowed in the state.
The state was also allowed by the Centre to roll out rapid COVID-19 testing on mass scale.
In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said there are 208 COVID-19 patients in the national capital, of which 108 were evacuated from the Nizamuddin Markaz (centre) of the Tablighi Jamaat.
He said two people who had attended the congregation died due to COVID-19 on Thursday and cautioned that the number of positive cases may shoot up in the national capital in coming days.
Later in the night, the Delhi Health Department said the number of coronavirus cases has reached 293, after with 141 fresh cases and two deaths reported in a day. Of the total confirmed infectiions, 182 people took part in the religious congregation in the Nizamuddin area last month. At least four persons have died of COVID-19 in the national capital so far.
The health ministry said domestic indigenous manufacturing of N-95 masks has been stepped up, while orders have been placed for over 1.5 crore personal protective equipment and supply has begun too.
The Congress, however, demanded that the government should immediately appoint an economic task force to suggest short and medium term plans to protect and revive economy.
It also demanded a financial assistance plan to reassure those affected due to lockdown.
Madhya Pradesh and Telananga also announced their tallies increasing to 107 and 154, respectively, while fresh cases were reported by Jharkhand and Bihar later in the night.
Among those who tested positive on Thursday, there were some doctors and at least one airline crew member.
Globally, more than 9,44,000 people have tested positive since the deadly virus outbreak in China in December 2019, while nearly 48,000 have lost their lives.
World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said there had been a "near exponential growth" in new cases over the past five weeks and a doubling of deaths in the past week alone.
"In the next few days we will reach one million confirmed cases and 50,000 deaths," he said, while asking Africa and Latin America to be ready for a wider impact.