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Police in India Monday were struggling to enforce coronavirus safety measures as mammoth crowds of Hindu worshipers gathered to bathe in the Ganges River amid soaring infections and virus-related deaths.

India reported a record 168,912 new cases Monday, bringing its total infection tally to 13.5 million — and officially making it the world’s hardest-hit nation after the United States — surpassing Brazil.

Hundreds of thousands of people showed up at the river for the start of the months-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, in Haridwar. Monday marks the largest day of bathing in the river, which many Hindus believe is holy.

Health experts had raised concerns that the festival would accelerate the spread of the virus and called on officials to cancel the celebrations. The government said it would allow the festival to go ahead but that attendees would need to test negative for coronavirus before entry. It also said local law enforcement would impose fines for those who violated social distancing measures.

But as crowds thronged along the riverbanks Monday, police officials warned that they were battling to keep the situation under control.

“The crowd here is surging. … The police are continuously appealing to people to maintain social distancing,” senior police official Sanjay Gunjyal told Reuters at the site.

He told India’s ANI news agency that because of the large crowds, it was impossible to issue fines.

India has suffered a severe upswing in coronavirus cases in recent months, a surge experts say is due to pandemic fatigue and the possible spread of new variants.

Authorities have launched mass vaccination drives but are now facing supply shortages, even as India has restricted vaccine exports due to domestic demand.

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