Upgrading for the challenge
THE WEEK|January 23, 2022
Even as hospitals in India battle Omicron and a surge in Covid-19 cases, they are building a health care system that will make them pandemic-proof
POOJA BIRAIA JAISWAL

Look who walked into the new year with us—the virus, albeit in a new avatar. While a third wave was inevitable, as predicted by experts like K. VijayRaghavan, India’s principal scientific adviser, last October, the sudden surge in cases now “may be because the virus was waiting for the dawn of a new year to bite,” says Professor Gobardhan Das, head of department, molecular medicine, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

In India, in the first week alone, it infected an average of 1.12 lakh people daily—a 500 per cent jump from the daily cases reported the week preceding it. Ever since the third wave began on December 21, 2021, nearly 4,500 cases of the Omicron variant, the now dominant circulating strain that affects the upper respiratory tract as against the Delta variant that affected the lungs, have been detected across India (till January 11).

The last time India witnessed an exponential rise in cases was during the second wave—May 6, 2021, saw 4.14 lakh cases and there was an average of nearly four lakh daily infections for seven days. “I won’t be surprised to see India easily crossing that figure in the next week or so, given that the Omicron is at least 10 times faster than Delta that rocked us last year,” says Das. Globally, more than 25 lakh Covid cases were recorded on January 4, the highest ever since the pandemic began two years ago.

As of January 9, the reproduction number of Covid-19 for India stood at 4.03, much higher than the 1.69 recorded during the peak of the second wave. This means that a single infected person can now be expected to transmit the disease to at least four people.

Many frontline staff, including doctors, are also testing positive, leading to acute manpower crunch in several states. Nurse Labeena Lagey attended to Covid patients during the last two waves and is back in the Covid ward at Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. “Earlier, all Covid patients were shifted to a separate building,” she says. “But, in the span of 10 days, all beds in the four-storey building are full, as are the beds in the separate ward that has been created in the main building. Although no patient is very serious, we are getting increasingly short-staffed as four of my colleagues tested positive in the last seven days.” The hospital is seeing double the number of patients it saw in December, says Dr Sunil Jain, head of emergency medical services, Jaslok hospital. “We are all taking our boosters,” he says.

As of January 9, the reproduction number of Covid-19 for India stood at 4.03, much higher than the 1.69 recorded during the peak of the second wave. This means that a single infected person can now be expected to transmit the disease to at least four people.

And this is happening across hospitals in Mumbai, which has already recorded close to twice the number of cases reported during the peak of the second wave. At Fortis hospital, Dr Rahul Pandit, a critical care specialist, and his team have attended to “at least 300” Covid-positive patients in the last 10 days or so. Around 30 of the hospital staff-tested positive in a week.

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