India has started administering booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine to frontline workers and vulnerable elderly people, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant an almost eightfold increase in daily infections since the beginning of the year.
India on Monday reported 179,723 new cases, most of them in the country’s largest cities – New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata – where Omicron Delta surpassed as the most common strain of the virus.
146 deaths were reported on Monday, bringing the toll to 483,936 since the pandemic first hit India in early 2020. Only the United States and Brazil recorded more deaths.
In recent days, hundreds of health care and front-line workers, including police, have contracted the virus, and there have been media reports that hundreds of parliamentary staff also tested positive ahead of a February 1 budget session.
This increase is facing third wave of infections, the government sent reminder reminders to more than 10 million people who took their second dose of the Covaxin or Covishield injection nine months ago.
Unlike many countries, India does not mix and match vaccines.
Only health care workers, frontline workers and people over the age of 60 who suffer from other health conditions are eligible for what the government calls a “precautionary dose”.
“The government is committed to providing additional security coverage to healthcare and frontline workers with priority,” Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya wrote on Twitter.
Despite the increase in infections, five states, including the most populous Uttar Pradesh hold regional elections from 10 February, although the authorities banned political party rallies until at least the middle of this month.
With the task of protecting India’s nearly 1.4 billion people from the virus, the government has administered a total of 1.5 billion vaccine doses. About 67 percent of the country’s 939 million adults are double-vaccinated and many have antibodies from previous infections.
It can provide “hybrid immunity” – a combination of immunity to previous infections and vaccines – comparable to boosters, said Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, an Indian epidemiologist.
Pressure on health workers
India’s hospitals at the best of times have few staff and health workers are unevenly distributed across states.
Hospitals are already crippled as hundreds of health workers fall ill with the variant. Federal hospitals have been forced to relax quarantine rules and some have discontinued routine services.
“Every third doctor is either symptomatic or positive. There is an acute shortage of staff. And there is an acute crisis, ”said Dr Anuj Aggarwal at New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, one of India’s largest state hospitals.
At the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi city, the capital of Jharkhand state in the east, a quarter of the 800 health workers were down with mild infections, said Dr Prabhat Kumar, in charge of COVID-19 treatment there, said.
The delay in providing boosters can be costly, says Dr T Jacob John, the former head of virology at Christian Medical College in southern India. He said giving third shots as a boom threatens to overwhelm hospitals would place an additional burden on health workers.
India’s overall COVID-19 testing remained at around 1.5 million per day, well below the capacity of more than two million.
Since the pandemic began, India has recorded 35.7 million cases of COVID-19, the highest in the world after the US.
Government officials have privately said they are working on the assumption that daily infections will surpass the record of more than 414,000 set in May, based on what happened in countries like the US, where daily cases rose by more than one million.