Omicron Fuels Fresh Surge, Threatening India’s Hospitals Anew

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While politicians hold large masked rallies, officials say they are securing more hospital beds, medicines and oxygen

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A government advisory said on Wednesday that the virus’s reproduction rate – the number of new infections caused by a single infectious person – recently climbed to 2.69, higher than last year’s peak of 1.69. The official case count is expected to surpass its daily record of 414,000 set in May, before the increase peaks in February.

Authorities in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities have responded with curfews and other restrictions, while they said they plan to add hospital beds, secure additional medicines and boost oxygen supplies.

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All three were in critically short supply last spring. People drove sick relatives to hospitals – ambulances were also rare – only to be turned away at the door. Many died without treatment at home. The cremation grounds used to run round the clock.

But health experts say many Indian states, which are largely responsible for the COVID-19 response, are unprepared for another serious surge – even if Omicron’s cases pale in comparison to those caused by the delta variant. be less severe, as some early studies indicate.

These experts say the declining infections and deaths over the months have satisfied many politicians and officials. They drop their masks and are once again holding big political rallies. COVID-19 wards and temporary treatment centers have been destroyed or greatly reduced. Some planned oxygen plants never materialized.

“On paper, we are better prepared. in mind, perhaps better prepared,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, a New Delhi-based think tank. “But in terms of actual operational requirements, states vary.”

Mumbai, India’s financial capital, by November had terminated contracts of about 85% to 90% of its staff at nine Covid-19 field hospitals, except for one “skeleton staff” who mostly handled vaccinations. Senior official Suresh Kakani said. of the city’s health department.

With almost no patients, Mumbai considered shutting down hospitals that have a total capacity of 10,000, but decided in December to keep them open until at least March 2022, Mr Kakani said. Now his team is busy preparing; An outsourcing agency is handling some of the hiring.

Mr. Kakani defended the shortage of staff as an effective use of existing resources. “Otherwise if someone is sitting idle, doing nothing, it is difficult to manage the staff,” he said.

Health experts said this time around, Indian doctors are armed with significant experience from the spring wave. But like their counterparts around the world, many are exhausted after a two-year pandemic. Doctors in New Delhi went on strike last month to protest the shortage of staff in government hospitals. The strike, which brought medical services to a halt, was called off a week ago.

Lalit Kant, former head of the department of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research, said hospitals and clinics of Covid-19 patients can be flooded, even if many are not seriously ill. “Now even mildly infected people are seeking counseling,” he said of a friend who recently closed his clinic until the infection subsided because he was exposed to large numbers of Covid-19 patients. Was working with 19 patients.

“He is an old man,” said Dr. Kant. “He’s scared himself.”

Politicians have sent mixed messages. Several cities have imposed COVID restrictions, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other elected officials continue to hold large election rallies ahead of major elections in several states this year. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday, a day after holding a rally where he delivered a speech without a mask. Later that day, Delhi announced a weekend curfew.

Statistical modeling by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Projects The current surge will peak at more than nine million new cases a day in early February — including infections not counted in the official tally — of last spring. Regarding matching its projection to the wave.

However, the deaths and hospitalizations are expected to be what they were last spring. In Mumbai, people hospitalized for Covid-19 in this surge tend to be less seriously ill than in previous waves, Mr. Kakani said. Patients are being discharged after four or five days in 2020, compared to 14 days during the first wave and 12 days during last year’s wave. Preliminary studies indicated that Omicron may be less lethal than Delta, and some countries, including South Africa, suffered rapid spread of the variant without a catastrophic increase in deaths.

But health experts said given India’s vast population of nearly 1.4 billion, public officials are relying on a less severe form of COVID-19, which means less severe strains on the health system are placing dangerous bets.

“If it re-infects millions and millions of people, there is still one percent going to be seriously ill,” said Dr Amir Ullah Khan, research director at the Center for Development Policy and Practice, a Hyderabad-based think tank. , “Especially if they haven’t been vaccinated.”

India missed its target of delivering two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine to its entire adult population of around 940 million by the end of 2021. About two-thirds of adults and 45% of the total population are double dosed. This month, the eligibility for the vaccine has been increased to children between the ages of 15 and 18. Booster shots for front-line workers and people over 60 with comorbidities will begin on January 10.

The government, Dr. Khan said, has failed to pursue its vaccination program as aggressively as some other countries, neither rewarding those who get their shots nor prohibiting those who do. are those who do not.

Certainly many Indians do not feel any urgency to get the vaccine. On a recent weekday morning, a medical clinic in south Delhi waited two hours before opening a bottle of Covishield, the local name for a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc. Only five people showed up for a jab.

“Not enough people showed up for us to open a vial,” said a staff member.

Write Shan Lee at [email protected]

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